CHI LINH, Vietnam — Army Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson commanded the Special Forces A Team at Chi Linh Special Forces Camp in the spring of 1967.
At the time, the camp was in the Republic of Vietnam, known to many Americans as South Vietnam. The Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after reunification with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — also known as North Vietnam — in 1975.
The Chi Linh camp was just off National Highway 14, about 100 kilometers north of Saigon — now officially Ho Chi Minh City. To the south of Chi Linh was War Zone D, an active area of fighting at the time.
Wally Johnson was with 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Toelz, West Germany, when he received orders sending him to Vietnam.
|Big gun inside Chi Linh Special Forces Camp|
“In June 1966 in Germany, people started coming out on levies for Vietnam,” Wally recalled. “We had 20 officers who were levied at one time and they almost immediately took off and went to Vietnam. Around June or July, I came up on orders to report in Vietnam in September.
On his arrival in South Vietnam, Wally was assigned to 5th Special Forces Group at Nha Trang, a coastal city near the large naval base at Cam Ranh Bay.
“All Special Forces guys were supposed to report in at Nha Trang, he said. “When I got there, the 20 officers I had known quite well were nowhere to be found and nobody even talked about them.”
Wally said the Army was going through organizational changes in Vietnam. “We had classified operations going at that time.” The organization conducting the operations was known as MACV SOG — an acronym for Military Assistance Command Vietnam, Studies and Observation Group, Wally said.
|Outside view of Chi Linh Camp|
“They reported straight to Gen. William C. Westmoreland down in Saigon and ran cross-border operations, predominately into North Vietnam,” he said. “When I got there, the 5th Special Forces Group, not to be outdone, formed its own organizations that did cross-border operations into Laos and Cambodia.
“The two organizations comprised Project Omega, which was in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and then Project Sigma, which was in the southern part and ran cross-border operations predominately into Cambodia,” Wally said. “The operations consisted of reconnaissance, what you call ‘snatch operations,’ where you try to get a prisoner, tapping into the enemy’s lines of communications, ambushes, but predominately monitoring the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the other side of the border. This was pretty high-risk stuff.”
Farther north, MACV SOG worked closely with the Marine Corps and Army Aviation assets, using older CH-46 and CH-34 helicopters and UH-1 “Hueys” to insert reconnaissance teams, he said.
“In December, I trained indigenous folks in airborne operations. They were going to be used to put insurgents into the North and other places across the border, Wally said.
“I was told I was going to get an A detachment and they wanted me to go down to III Corps and work in Detachment B-31 in the pacification and revolutionary development program. The pacification program, in simple terms, was to return villages and hamlets and so forth under Viet Cong or North Vietnam Army control to South Vietnamese control.
A Special Forces B team was the headquarters element of a company, normally composed of 11–13 soldiers. The team usually was commanded by a major and consisted of multiple A teams — or detachments — the basic elements of Special Forces. Each A team had 12 soldiers and usually was commanded by a captain.
|Soldiers inside Chi Linh Camp|
“On paper, I was the civil affairs officer (S-5 officer) for B-31, but I ran reconnaissance and direct-action missions. One of the direct-action missions was to eliminate a tax-collection point on Route 1, which came out of the north from Da Lat and was the road over which produce was delivered south to Saigon,” he said. “The NVA and the Viet Cong had tax-collection points, where they collected money, produce, and anything else they deemed necessary to fund and supply their troops.”
Wally said that by “working in conjunction with the Vietnamese and civilian advisors, we took that operation out, eliminated it, and it was nonexistent for a long time.” Two enemy soldiers were killed and another was captured, he said.
“It turned out the one we captured was the head of the tax-collection operation,” he recalled.
“I was the S-5 in Detachment B-31 at Xuan Loc from early December until March 1967, when I took over command of Cau Song Be,” Wally said. When he was assigned to the camp, it was under construction by engineers.
“We cut down all the trees to increase visibility, using the timbers to build the fortifications, command bunker, and all that stuff,” Wally recalled.
“When I got there, my primary mission was to get the camp built to where it was defensible. We did that in March and early April,” he said. “When we got to where we could defend the camp, we started sending out operations. We always had at least two operations out at a time. One operation was out only about 3-4 kilometers, with another operation out deeper — 8-10 kilometers in a different direction.
|A CIDG soldier inside Chi Linh Camp|
“Most were company-size operations to maintain unit integrity. We had advisors who worked with Montagnard people or Cambodians. Every now and then, for short-range operations, we’d send out a recon platoon of Chinese Nungs, which was about 25-35 folks and a couple of advisors,” Wally said. “Occasionally we’d send operations into War Zone D, crossing the Song Be River. That area was heavily, heavily fortified. That was a tough area. We knew there was at least a regimental-size force down in there. We also used the Nungs to secure the inner perimeter at night.”
Wally remembered Cau Song Be as a pretty tough area. “War Zone D was to the south of us, the Cambodian border was to the north, and then to the west was the Iron Triangle and War Zone C,” he said.
On May 14, 1967, the day of the helicopter rescue mission, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers who ambushed the Civilian Irregular Defense Group company from the Special Forces camp were suspected of leaving War Zone C as a result of Operation Junction City.
May 14 was the final day of Operation Junction City, the largest U.S. military offensive of the Vietnam War. The pilots of the two rescue Hueys had flown combat missions during the operation that had involved 22 U.S. Army battalions and 4 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalions. On the first day of the operation alone, 575 allied military aircraft were involved.
Operation Junction City began on February 22, 1967, when 845 paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade jumped deep into War Zone C. Helicopters lifted additional troops into the area.
The operation’s objectives were to destroy the 9th Viet Cong Division and the 101st North Vietnam Army Regiment based in War Zone C; destroy the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the enemy’s headquarters in South Vietnam; and establish a CIDG camp at Prek Klok to monitor enemy movement.
By the end of the operation, 2,728 Viet Cong soldiers had been killed and 34 captured. U.S. losses included 282 soldiers killed and 1,576 wounded. However, COSVN was not captured and continued to operate throughout the remainder of the war.
Captain Larry Liss, who later would fly as Warrant Officer Tom Baca’s copilot during the medical evacuation and rescue of more than 100 CIDG soldiers from the Chi Linh Special Forces Camp, remembered his role in Operation Junction City. At the time he was stationed at Cu Chi, 20 miles northwest of Saigon.
Liss initially served as a scout commander, a sub military occupational specialty of Armor. “Because of that and several years of experience, a week prior to the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s jump into Operation Junction City, I was designated the assistant Pathfinder Detachment commander,” he said. Liss and Captain Brent Artley, also a pilot stationed at Chu Chi, rappelled from UH-1 “Hueys” into the main landing zone three days before the jump.
During most of the operation, Liss and Artley managed the landing zones, making certain they were prepared and marked for landings by flights of helicopters bringing assault troops into the area.
“Out of 60 days or so, we were in heavy contact with the North Vietnam Army about 15,” Liss said.
“During Junction City, I may have logged around 30 hours over 60 days. Artley and I had our own UH-1, which we used to jump around the entire zone to help us manage all of the LZs. I think that we only had about five situations where we had to come to the aid of troops,” he said.
“I then was pulled from the field and flew directly to Vung Tau for a three-day pass and then got my stuff from Chu Chi and reported to II Field Force Vietnam sometime in mid-March. It took me a few weeks until I was cleared by the IIFFV check pilot to be a command pilot for the flight detachment. I think my first real flight with IIFFV was around April 1,” Liss recalled.
His first flights in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot were in October 1966 with the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company out of Phuoc Vinh.
I had been flying helicopter missions in Vietnam for a couple of weeks when our unit, the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, joined a massive formation of Hueys flying combat assaults in Operation Junction City.
After several assault, the large formation landed in a clearing. I walked down a line of Hueys to see if I knew any of the pilots from other helicopter units. I found a flight school classmate named Jim Stephens. He was sitting in the cockpit of a Huey with blood running from his lips.
“Jim, what happened to you? Are you OK?” I asked. He looked terrible.
Jim told me the blood came from thin, shallow cuts in his upper and lower lips. He explained that during one assault, he had turned to the other pilot in his Huey and clicked on the intercom button. Just as Jim opened his mouth to speak, a chunk of shrapnel flew through the window and creased his lips.
Jim said he was lucky he had opened his mouth to speak when he did. Had his mouth not been open, the shrapnel likely would have blown away his jaw. I would learn over the course of my combat tour that war was a series of very close calls.
Many helicopter units were on maintenance and crew stand-down because of intensive flying during Operation Junction City.
Wally said when the CIDG soldiers from Chi Linh encountered the 600-700 enemy combatants, “We had never run into any large, well-organized units previously. We had run into a couple of Viet Cong platoons, nothing big. But when Junction City started, we thought we had COSVN surrounded, but I don’t think anyone knew the extent of the tunnel network up in War Zone C.
“We were tightening the noose and most of the enemy used the tunnel network to work their way out of there, and there was nowhere near the number of people left that we expected,” Wally said. “They either went back over the Cambodian border or came west and south to War Zone D. I think that’s probably what happened on May 14th. We ran into one or more of those units or they were headed in our direction to overrun Chi Linh camp. It was just kind of a coincidence that our patrol got ambushed by them,” Wally said.
The stage was set for the clash that would bring the two Hueys into the battle in time to keep the CIDG soldiers and their U.S. Special Forces advisors from being overrun.