Written by Kit Jarrell and Heidi Thiess
In June of 2005, Operation Homecoming USA
took place in Branson, MO. It was the homecoming event that Vietnam veterans all over America had never gotten. Parades, air shows, a golf tournament, and a week of simply being in the company of others who had shared the same experiences. For thousands of veterans it was healing that had taken almost 40 years to come.
Financed partly by multi-millionaire and former Presidential candidate Ross Perot, Operation Homecoming USA was the brainchild of Gary Linderer. He had lived out of a suitcase for two years, shuttling back and forth between his home south of St. Louis and the event site in Branson. Linderer's wife quit her job and took a position helping Linderer work on his vision. The event took shape and promised to be something incredible for tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who deserved to be honored as heroes. However, a shadow would fall on the event in the form of accusations against Linderer, all having to do with one day long ago on a Vietnam trail.
On February 15, 2005 an email went out to “Operation Homecoming USA board members, entertainers and celebrities appearing at the event, the media, Internet sites, and to various veterans,”1
stating that the men of Team 24, and Gary Linderer specifically, had targeted unarmed female rice porters in their ambush instead of the NVA nurses and staff officer that the team claimed. The email to the above addresses pertaining to Operation Homecoming had been written by Annette Hall, the wife of Vietnam veteran Donald C. Hall. Don Hall had served as a team leader with F/51st, another Long Range Patrol unit that operated near Saigon, almost 650 miles south of Camp Eagle and Team 24’s ill-fated mission.
The email, later posted on the Halls’ website, outlined the Halls’ strong belief that Linderer and Team 24 had purposefully targeted unarmed female rice porters after letting 30 Viet Cong go past them throughout the night. According to the Halls, Team 24 was afraid of the dark and did not want to engage the enemy. Although the people involved with Operation Homecoming had not heard anything of these accusations before, to Linderer and his fellow LRPs, this was just another attack by the Halls; one of many in the last 9 years.
The Halls cite an Army document called a DA-1594 as proof of their claims, which is a Duty Officer’s Radio Log that ideally chronicles a summary of the radio traffic reported to division level. The Halls believe that the 1594s refute the version of November 20th told by the survivors and expose a cover-up by the LRP team.
The next few articles in our series will deal with some of the accusations one by one.a. The Ambush1. Allegation:
The Halls believe that the mission of Team 24 was not to find an enemy base camp, but to kill 30 VC that had been “terrorizing” a “nearby village.” From the Operation Homecoming email, Annette Hall stated: "The 101st Airborne Division sent out two 12-man Long Range Patrol 'heavy teams' to locate and ambush the 30 VC."
Also from the Halls' website:
The ambush of the small group of "armed" "NVA staff officers and nurses" on the morning of 20 November 1968 was actually an ambush in broad daylight on a group of unarmed female rice porters from a nearby village, all of whom were killed, though according to their books, one of the women took awhile to die. The night before, according to their books, Linderer and the rest of the 12-main[sic] "heavy team" of Lurps (LRPs) of which he was a part, had let the 30 VC who had been their primary objective go by unmolested. Instead, the next day, Linderer's 12-man team ambushed the rice-carrying women.
The Halls claim Page 2 of the 1594 log for 20 November 1968
, entered at 10:00 am, confirms this as the mission objective.
"G2 recd msg fr 1st Bde[1st Brigade] stating: At 2400 [midnight] to 0400H vic [in the vicinity of] An Nong 1 YD 918093 & An Nong 3 YD 933106 in Loc Bon village[village name and coordinates], info came from village chief to A Co [Alpha Company] that 30 VC [Viet Cong] last night came through loc [location] above. Primary purpose was to collect money, but would accept rice instead. They came fr [from] south and returned south.”
The first notable point is the time. According to the entry above, chiefs from the village of Loc Bon had come to the 1st Brigade to complain that some "VC" soldiers had visited their village "last night" demanding money or rice. Team 24's mission, as relayed to them on the 18th, was to find the large enemy forces in the area and there is no record anywhere of their mission being altered after insertion. They received the warning order for their mission on November 18th and were inserted on the early evening of the 19th. At midnight on 20 November 1968, Team 24 had already been laying in the jungle with an injured Sgt John Sours for over 6 hours between two large forces of NVA.
According to our research, these villages were also not located near the ambush site. Without exception, every veteran we spoke with who worked in that area (both from F/58th and other unrelated units) stated that there were no villages left. U.S. Army maps confirm that all villages in the Ruong Ruong Valley at that time had been long since abandoned and moved to the east side of Highway 1, a major thoroughfare. The coordinates of the village in question are 22 kilometers north and 10 kilometers west
from the place where Team 24 ambushed the enemy. In order for the rice carrying detail mentioned above to have encountered the LRPs in the jungle, they would have had to travel approximately 27 kilometers on foot in half a day’s time through craggy and mountainous terrain in a straight line.
Another notable point is that these villages were only 4 kilometers east southeast
of Camp Eagle in the rear. The Halls do not explain why 2d Brigade would send twelve men 27 kilometers away to deal with a problem that was only 4 kilometers away. The team was also inserted to the southwest; in the opposite direction.
The message in the 1594 also came from 1st Brigade, which was not the Brigade that F/58th was attached to. The LRPs of F/58th, though part of the 101st Airborne Division, came under the operational control (OPCON) of the 2d Squadron, 17th Cavalry. According to the report, the village chiefs spoke with someone from Alpha Company within the 1st Brigade. The LRPs of Team 24 were from Foxtrot Company, 58th Infantry, under the 2d Brigade.2. Allegation:
The reason Team 24 did not blow their ambush is because they were afraid of the NVA and the dark.
Although there is nothing in the 1594s to support this particular contention, several emails and notes written by the Halls offer reasons why Team 24 did not engage the enemy during the night. The reasons range from outright cowardice to the fact that Contreros was due to go home soon.
SGT Alberto Contreros was, by all accounts, an excellent soldier. He was an honor graduate of both MACV Recondo School and stateside Recondo School. More importantly, he was described by his commanding officer and fellow soldiers as “bold”, “gung-ho” and “motivated” In fact, some describe him as “medal-hungry”. Originally from Cuba, Contreros’ dream was to return to his former homeland and liberate it from Fidel Castro, according to the men who served with him. Several veterans have told us that Contreros was one of two people in the unit (the other being SSG Richard Burnell) who seemed to enjoy combat. There is no evidence, written or otherwise, to suggest that Contreros would have shirked his duty to engage if the situation had been conducive, and as the Team Leader, it was Contreros' call to engage.
However, Team 24 had been inserted into an area that was literally crawling with NVA. There were 12 soldiers on the team and Sours was already injured. The NVA were aware the team was on the ground and sent small units down the trail followed by larger ones in an attempt to draw the team into an ambush they could not get out of. To the team, engaging a much larger force at night with a member of the team unable to walk was not a prudent course of action. The ambush was blown soon after Sours was extracted the next morning.3. Allegation:
From an email to these authors from Annette Hall dated 4 July 2005:
[Don] believes the 5 female and 4 male rice porters that the team ambushed on 20 November were young villagers transporting rice to the VC to fulfill the demands made by the group of VC who had been terrorizing the local villages demanding rice and/or money. He cannot say absolutely whether or not there were VC or NVA in the group or not.
According to every single veteran we spoke with, the entire area that the LRPs worked in was occupied by North Vietnamese Army regulars, not the Viet Cong troops that could be found in the southern provinces. In late 1968, after the Tet Offensive the NVA troops had literally poured in through the North Vietnam border according to military intelligence. Of the many veterans from different units that we spoke to unrelated to F/58th, such as the Delta Raiders that operated out of LZ Sally, they all state emphatically that they never saw or engaged a VC soldier in their entire time in the field.
“In my whole year over there, I never fought VC,” said Gene Robertson, a platoon sergeant with the 2nd platoon, Delta Company, 501st Airborne. “I fought NVA.”
According to the U.S. Army at the time, the area west and south of the city of Hue extending all the way to the Laotian border and north to the North Vietnam border was a free-fire zone. This vast area was home to thousands of NVA soldiers who moved frequently between mobile base camps. A free-fire zone meant that there were no friendly forces in the area; including civilians or innocent villagers. Anyone encountered by LRP teams in the area were legitimate enemy targets.
“The entire AO (area of operations) was a hostile area,” said Chuck Leshikar, platoon leader for the 3rd Platoon. “There was no civilization within 9 miles; no civilians and no villages.”
Jerry Head, another member of 2nd Platoon, agrees. “Even if they were women, they had no business being on that trail. I’d have shot them.”
According to members of Special Forces units unrelated to B-36 or F/58th that we consulted, as well as sources knowledgeable on Vietnam and its history, actual “rice porters” in northern South Vietnam traveled in groups of 20-50 and were usually accompanied by an equal-sized group of ammunition porters. Rice porters carried 50 pound bags of rice or the metric equivalent and were slow moving. They were heavily guarded by NVA troops who went along with them as security. A standard ratio was 30-40 porters for 70-100 NVA troops. According to the 1594s for Nov 23, the 1st platoon of D/501 found only 20 pounds of rice in a tube at the ambush site; assumed to be daily rations for the medical team the men ambushed. This confirms what the men of Team 24 remember seeing on the bodies.3. Accusation:
The .45-caliber pistols found on the females were “in all probability” planted by the team, and were in actuality the weapons carried by the two M-60 gunners and their assistants.
From a taped conversation between Don Hall and these authors dated 3 Jun 05:
Don Hall: Now, if you’re on an ambush in a LRP team, on the flanks of the ambush, you have 2 M60 machine guns that cover the flanks and the M60 machine gunner and his assistant who carries ammo for him. That’s a total of 4 .45 pistols that the Americans setting up the ambush carried. The VC normally carried the North Vietnamese, Chinese 9mm pistols most of the time.
Heidi Thiess: Are you implying that there were no weapons captured?
Don Hall: More than likely, yes.
Hall’s belief that the 45s came from the M-60 gunners and their assistants is apparently a new speculation that has evolved over the last three years. In an email dated 8 June 2003 and sent to 37 people within the veteran community, Hall derides the LRP team for not having one.
"Keep in mind, that this team DID NOT have even one M-60 machinegun in support of themselves on this date of 20 Nov. 1968 as they claim," Hall writes. "RED FLAG, RIGHT?"
In Don’s own book, I Served
, on pg. 124, he states that “the M16, while a good weapon, is not suitable to LRRP operations as is the CAR-15 because it is too long and catches in the brush.” The M16 was approximately 9 lbs, and 40” long – the M60 was 23 lbs and 44” long – a significantly larger weapon. The ammo came in 250 and 500 round belts, and were significantly heavier also. The M60 gunner usually had at least one, possibly two assistants, also carrying heavy belts of extra ammo. Two M60s would eat up six personnel – on a small, fast, moving LRP team, in difficult mountain/jungle terrain - unwieldy, unlikely and more trouble than it was worth.
As Hall was evidently aware at the time, the LRPs of F/58th rarely if ever took M60s on missions and did not have one on the mission of 20 Nov 1968. The mountainous and wild jungle terrain did not provide the required fields of fire for a weapon of that weight and power and were incredibly hard to carry in that type of situation. F/58th personnel also did not carry .45-caliber pistols at all. The unit only had one and it was assigned to the payroll officer, according to one veteran of F/58th.
Three of the four females in the ambushed party carried .45-caliber pistols. One of these females had her firearm concealed in her rucksack along with her medical supplies. CPT Eklund stated that there was an intelligence report of a field hospital in the vicinity.
In an email to the authors dated 4 July 05, Annette Hall explains her theory that the party ambushed was not a threat to the team.
Don cannot say whether or not there were any actual VC or NVA with the rice-porter detail, but even if there were, he says that since the group was made up of five females (according to the DA1594) and the group carried only two .45 caliber pistols (according to the DA1594), they offered little actual threat to a heavy team of 12 fully armed Lurps waiting in ambush. And, it was broad daylight, so the team should have been able to see what visible arms the group of rice porters was carrying and what sort of threat, if any, they presented. If no weapons were visible, why did they blow the ambush? Even if two of the group had been brandishing their 45's, would that have made them so formidable that the Lurps' first action would have been to blow all their claymores on the group? Linderer says in his books that one of the 45's was found in the bottom of one of the female's rucksacks. How much of a legitimate threat could they have possibly been?
According to our research, the ‘assessment of threat’ was a foregone conclusion by the U.S. Army, who had ruled the entire area a free-fire zone. In a phone call on 21 July, Hall stated to these authors that "a braver man would have stepped on that trail and taken those people prisoner instead of just blowing claymores on them." The Halls’ contention that Team 24 blew an ambush instead of taking the party prisoner to “ascertain what kind of threat they actually posed” demonstrates a misunderstanding of the mission of a hunter/killer team. This photo
of the ambush site was provided to us by Jerry Head, a member of the 2nd Platoon, D/501. His unit was inserted in this area on the basis of the intel Team 24 had recovered in their ambush. Out of respect for the dead, we have blurred the bodies of the enemy soldiers caught in the LRPs claymore mines.
The unnamed soldier from D/501 is standing at the break of the trail, and to the soldier's left is the ridgeline. The bodies are laid out in a row down the trail. To the right and above the trail are the ambush positions where the team laid no more than 10 feet from the enemy soldiers as they passed. Further right is the knoll where they fought for their lives. 4. Accusation:
The team sat around for over an hour trying to decide how to explain that they just killed unarmed rice porters.
The Halls claim that the hour spent at the ambush site was for the purpose of creating a cover story that would explain the LRPs apparent murder of unarmed civilians. As evidenced above, those killed were not civilians but rather NVA, they were armed and the area was a free-fire zone.
According to CPT Eklund, their commanding officer, the men remained in the area to wait for a chopper that would bring a reaction force. The team was instructed to meet the reaction force and board the choppers where they would be re-armed and reinserted in Burnell’s area of operations five klicks away. Team 24 had one LZ and could not move far. No cover-up story was necessary because the LRPs had executed their mission as a hunter/killer team.
In Hall’s own book, I Served
, he describes a mission in Chapter 14 wherein a LRP Team 24 (and the CO was “Six”, just like F/58th’s Team) was spotted by an enemy soldier “about 9 or 10 years old” who came with 2 feet of the team and escaped unharmed. They knew the Team was in trouble because the enemy would report their position and draw the VC “like flies looking for a turd”. Indeed, in Don’s version of events, Team 24 did not quickly move off site, but instead set up a “tight perimeter” and was eventually surrounded by “what was estimated to be an NVA company”. He describes a 2-hour firefight, incoming artillery, claymores blown on “gooks” and the eventual successful extraction of Team 24. Hall does not say whether the threat was "properly ascertained" or if the taking of prisoners was considered.
Back in the rear, when asked by Maj Maus, F/51st's commander, why the Team didn’t move to the LZ after being compromised , the team leader said he” didn’t want to lead them to the landing zone and be caught waiting for the slicks”. “Excellent decision," Major Maus acknowledged. The situations seem quite similar, but for whatever reason, the actions of F/58th's Team 24 are worthy of ridicule and the actions of Hall's own team are not.5. Accusation:
One of the females “took a while to die”.
The Halls cite the 1594, page 2, item 17, which states in part:
8 VC were killed outright, one was captured but was seriously wounded. This VC later died after attempt to evac him was made. No friendly cas.
The female that survived the initial claymore blast was horrifically wounded. She died within 3 minutes. There was no attempt to evacuate this female according to CPT Eklund.
The Halls claim that the 1594s are a perfect and accurate account of all action within the division. However, in one of the many errors, the 1594 gives the gender of this NVA soldier as male. In this instance, the Halls themselves disagree with what the 1594 says. In Annette Hall's email, she says the wounded soldier was female.6. Accusation:
Linderer blew his claymore without the team leader’s signal.
In the 4 July email, Annette Hall writes:
Don believes that Gary Linderer blew his claymore, thus initiating the ambush, and did so without the team leader's signal. Don believes that Linderer blew his claymore as soon as the rice porters came into view, without first giving the team leader the chance to ascertain just what kind of actual threat the group of rice porters presented to the fully loaded 12-man Lurp team, and whether or not they were a valid target. In Don's LRP outfit, the team leader was the one who was authorized to initiate an ambush, not team members, not unless the team leader was dead. If he were dead, then then[sic] assistant team leader would take over command decisions. It was always the team leader who popped the first claymore and the team followed suit.
In all the documentation provided by the Halls, there was no evidence that confirmed that Linderer blew his claymore without a signal by the team leader. In our research, we found that in this case the team leader gave a predetermined signal by snapping his fingers. Upon this signal, all members of the team blew their claymores at the same time. This was confirmed by Riley Cox, Gary Linderer and other members of Team 24.7. Accusation:
Team 24 did not at any time during the day, engage a force larger than a reinforced enemy squad.
As previously noted in Don’s Book, Chapter 14, it is most likely that a large number of NVA are drawn to a compromised team. It is highly improbable, with as many NVA units as were reported in this area, the ambush would go unnoted except by a small squad.
Note: It is unlikely that 6 pairs of F-4 Phantoms flew multiple sorties, and at least that many Cobras spent six hours bombing and strafing the area for only one “squad” of NVA. Everyone at and over the battlesite could see that there were hundreds (CPT Eklund estimated considerably more) of NVA soldiers that had converged on the battle zone. All eyewitness accounts, both from the ground and the air support the estimate of a battalion-sized enemy force.
CPT Ken Eklund, Commander, F/58th: “Intel indicated there were two regiments and one sapper battalion in this direct vicinity. There were approximately 15,000-20,000 ‘gooks’ in the Ruong Ruong/Ashau area.”
SP4 Tony Tercero, leader of the reaction force: “More ‘gooks’ than I have ever seen. They completely surrounded the knoll…When we ran up the hill, there were at least a hundred NVA running down the hill…I never saw so many dinks face to face.”
SP4 Tim Coleman, member of the reaction force: “The NVA looked like ants on a cake. There were at least two reinforced rifle companies or a battalion on that hill.”
SP4 John Reid, door gunner for WO2 Grant’s chopper: "I distinctly remember, as we took the last of the reaction force out AFTER DARK, the crew of the aircraft overhead, telling us on the radio that they could see the muzzle flashes of over two hundred weapons firing at us, some of them big crew served guns."
Gene Robertson, Platoon Sergeant , 2d Plt, Delta Raiders: “There was a heck of a force in the [ambush] area…We came across many enemy fighting positions, spider holes, and the like.” The Delta Raiders found a vegetable garden in the area. “We knew we were in the area of many enemies,” he said.
The Nov 1968 MACV Battle Summary
, on page 34, details graves found containing 55 enemy soldiers killed by air strikes and artillery.
CPT Eklund directed six pairs of F-4 Phantom fighter jets in defense of the LRP team.
On 20 Nov, the US Air Force Daily Summary states that 31 jet sorties were flown in support of Operation Nevada Eagle, of which this mission was a part.
The MACV Order of Battle for both September
and October 1968
showed the 4th NVA Infantry Regiment moving south through 2d Brigade, 101st Airborne’s area of operation.
Intelligence for the month of November, 1968 at 101st Airborne level indicated the additional presence of the 5th NVA Regiment. After 20 Nov, intelligence indicated that the executive officer was killed in that area during that timeframe.
Multiple members of the reaction force plainly stated that they had a difficult time getting to the team at the top of the hill due to the carnage of bodies and body parts that littered the knoll. They specifically describe slipping in the copious amounts of blood. Captain Eklund described a wide swath of blood on the side of the hill in front of Riley Cox, who the other men credit with singlehandedly keeping the NVA in front of him at bay while Linderer and Walkabout tried to get the wounded off the hill even while he tried desperately to hold his own intestines in.8. Accusation:
The team leader called in artillery on the team, causing the explosion.
- Al Contreros was an acknowledged expert in artillery.
- We investigated the possibility of an artillery round falling short. However, based on the position of the firebases lending artillery support and the trajectory (or gun line) of incoming rounds, any rounds falling short would not have reached the team at all.
- There were multiple aircraft in the immediate airspace directly overhead and around the team at the time of the explosion. CPT Eklund states that artillery ceased at least 15 minutes before the explosion. However, in order for a Cobra rocket to have hit the team, the gunship would have had to turn almost vertical on its nose.
- Based on the experiences of LRPs on the ground and the medic from Burnell’s team, the shrapnel was consistent with a Chinese Communist (CHICOM) 40-pound claymore mine.
Next: More Accusations.
From the website the Halls made to outline their accusations against Linderer.