Talking Proud Archives --- Military

RT Breaker Patrol, the Hill Battles of Vietnam

On May 9-10, 1967, seven men from Reconnaissance Team Breaker, Alpha Company, 3rd Marine Recon, ran into one tough fight on Hill 665 near Khe Sanh, Republic of Vietnam. Four died, three badly wounded were heroically rescued and survived. This happened a year before the better known 1968 Siege of Khe Sanh. Breaker was in the Hill Battles of 1967. What were these men doing on Hill 665? To formulate meaningful responses to this question, we reconstructed the history that brought these brave six Marines and one Navy medic to these battles, along with all those others who did the same.

March 1, 2006

Introduction

James Neil Tycz, 22, had just been promoted to platoon sergeant with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, assigned to Alpha Company at Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), Republic of Vietnam (RVN). He also just got his new lieutenant, 2nd Lt Heinz Ahlmeyer Jr. The night before he was to go on patrol, he wrote a letter to "Mom and Pop" which said, in part, the following:

“Our lieutenant passed me the word that we go in at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow. None of us want to go, but that’s our job and I pray I will never fail to do it. Your Marine Son, Neil.”

While Tycz was junior to the lieutenant, he was seasoned and this was Ahlmeyer's first patrol, so Tycz would carry an extra responsibility to teach the boss and lead the patrol.


Marine recon patrol team members board a CH-46. First Lt. Walt Wise, of HMM-364, takes a few moments to contemplate the mission ahead. Shortly, he will be flying the Recon Marines into an LZ somewhere in I Corps. Submitted by: Steve Farley. Presented by popasmoke.com

Recon Team (RT) callsign "Breaker," six Marines and one Navy corpsman, were flown by helicopter to their objective during the late afternoon the next day, May 9, 1967. Their mission was to scout Hill 665 and its near environs, gather intelligence on enemy infiltration routes, determine if there was any enemy activity in their patrol area, and get that information back to HQ for action.


This is what Marine Recon teams looked like after insertion. A HMM-164, callsign "Yankee Tango Six," inserted this Marine Recon Team on January 19, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. Photo credit: Charles "Chuck" Nowotny. Presented by popasmoke.com, with good amplifying text.

Breaker was inserted onto a ridge-line of Hill 665 just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), about 10 kms northwest of a place well known to many Americans, Khe Sanh, RVN. They were inserted at 4:50 p.m. Once on the ground, the Marines noticed a well-constructed position surrounded by four empty enemy bunkers and assorted enemy gear. They reported their finding, and continued their patrol. They then found nine more bunkers and enemy gear. All together, their estimate was the facilities could hold about 250 enemy. They were then told to leave the area and establish a night defensive position on high ground, which they did.

Later that evening, at about midnight, from 30-50 enemy returned to their bunkers. Several enemy stumbled into RT Breaker's position, Breaker opened fire, and a 12 hour battle ensued.

"Marine Son Neil" did his job, as he prayed he would, gallantly, and he paid the supreme sacrifice. He received the Navy Cross posthumously, the Navy’s second highest medal.

Three others died with him:


Second Lt Heinz Ahlmeyer Jr., 23, on his first patrol.


Lance Corporal Samuel A. Sharp Jr., 21, assistant patrol leader.


Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Malcolm T. "Doc" Miller, 20, a Navy hospital corpsman with his Marines.

Lynne Duke, a
Washington Post staff writer and author, wrote a story entitled “The Last Good bye” published by the newspaper on May 10, 2005. Her article describes RT Breaker's fight on Hill 665. In addition, an interview recapping the battle was conducted with Capt. A. Crosby, Alpha Co. commander, and taped. We commend both of these to you.

Within roughly the first hour or so of fighting, three Marines and one Navy corpsman were dead. Lt. Ahlmeyer and Sgt. Tycz, the number one and two designated leaders, were killed in the first minutes. Shortly thereafter Sharp was killed by fire to the chest, and then Miller was hit, smashing open a main artery, and he died.

This left three Marines to fight off this enemy force.

But then, Pfc Carl Friery was wounded very badly by gunfire to the gut and lost consciousness, though the other two did not know he was down until a bit later in the battle.

This left two Marines to fight through the night on top of Hill 665, supported by as much artillery, helicopter and aircraft suppressive fire that could be mustered. Following the initial confrontation, the enemy withdrew, but continued probing, trying to close with the Marines. The two Marines, Carlson and Lopez, beat them back with grenades and small arms fire. They ran low on ammunition, and were forced to retrieve unused ammo from their downed fellow Marines. They were also forced to use corpses, including those of their team, to protect themselves from the intensive fire. That's when they discovered Friery was badly wounded and unconscious, but alive. They moved him to try to protect him.

LCpl Clarence R. Carlson (Silver Star) was already wounded by shrapnel from the grenade that killed Tycz. He continued to fight. When it was over, he had shrapnel wounds and gun fire wounds to the arm and leg.

Pfc Steven D. Lopez (Navy Cross), 18, on only his third patrol, would operate the radio, calling in fire, close air support and helicopter gunships and extraction flights. By the time the fight was over, he had gunshot wounds to the chest, leg and head and abdominal wounds.

An exceedingly dangerous rescue effort proceeded to extract Breaker patrol, even as the hilltop was aflame with hostile fire. Several helicopters tried to get in, only to be turned back by relentless enemy fire. Duke reported that one helicopter took 182 hits, wounding the whole crew, before having to turn back.

Capt. Paul "PT" Looney (Silver Star posthumously), a HMM-164 CH-46A pilot, callsign "Yankee Tango 5," brought his bird into a 20 foot hover near Breaker, but was riddled with enemy fire. Looney was shot through the throat, and bled to death on the way back to Khe Sanh. Several of his crew had gunfire wounds, one through the wrist, the other through his butt, during their attempt to get in.

At daybreak, more helicopters came in, but also could not set down. An Air Force Forward Air Controller (FAC) arrived overhead and brought in a series of fighter attack aircraft. At one point, enemy were within 20 meters of Breaker. Lopez called in artillery exceedingly close to their position and also coordinated with the FAC to lay down napalm dangerously close to their position. The napalm was effective. and drove the enemy back. Much of the battle scene was on fire.


This is an actual "Scarface" UH-1E "Slick" flying in the vicinity of Dong Ha, RVN in winter 1969. This is the kind of aircraft that extracted the Breaker survivors, and from the same squadron, HML-367, Phu Bai. Presented by Scarface.

As a result, one Huey, callsign "Scarface," commanded and piloted by Major Charles Reynolds (Silver Star), Lt. David Meyers (Distinguished Flying Cross) co-pilot, with Cpls. Jackie Acosta (Bronze Star) and Ronald Zaczek (Bronze Star) as crew, swept in under heavy fire. Lopez got Scarface on the radio. This was the transmission:

"Scarface, this is Breaker. We're burning. You gotta get us out. Scarface, you gotta get us out. We're burning up."

Scarface set down in the zone on his last pass. The crew chief, Cpl. Ron "Zack" Zaczek (shown in photo at Gio Linh, 1967), jumped out with crewmate Cpl. Acosta to haul the survivors aboard. The Huey struggled to get airborne, she took fire, but got out of there by the grace of God and one helluva crew.

Because of the extensive fires caused by the napalm attacks, the four Breaker patrol killed in action (KIA) had to be left behind. Friery remained unconscious but survived. The two Marines able to fight through the night had about 20 rounds of ammo left between them when Scarface picked them up. Had Scarface's mission failed, all three would likely have been overrun and killed.

The Marines have a time-honored tradition of not leaving their dead behind. You can read story after story of Marines getting wounded or killed trying to retrieve their dead. Ron Zaczek, the crew chief who helped retrieve the three Breaker survivors, was i
nterviewed by Bob Skinder of popasmoke.com three decades later. It's a most worthwhile read. In that interview, "Zack" said this:

“We got three Marines out alive. We left the bodies of three Marines and a Corpsman behind. I’ve never forgiven myself for leaving them behind, even in death. Every Marine knows what I mean.”

Zaczek conveyed what he told the family members:

"I told them about the napalm fires, the bunkers and spider holes that had us caught in crossfire, and all the fixed-wing and helicopter crews that flew that day, putting their own lives at risk. I told them about Sam Beamon on his 50 caliber drawing fire away from us, and Dutch Holland burning the barrels out of his M-60, and about Reynolds, Myers and Acosta (Scarface crew) on our three attempts to land in the zone. I wanted them to know how so many men in so many machines tried so very hard to return their son, their brother. I told them about getting Friery, Carlson and Lopez into the slick with their massive wounds and how helpless I felt. I described how Reynolds had barely been able to lift us off that damned hill, and that if there had been one more survivor, we’d have never gotten into the air unless one of us stayed behind. I told them that I was so very, very sorry that we couldn’t get their loved ones out."

The survivors nicknamed their position on Hill 665, "Puff the Magic Dragon" because of the heavy fire they took.

There is a
list available of all those helicopter crew who participated in the Breaker action on the web.

The remains of the four KIA were recovered in May 2003 by the Joint Task Force (JTF) of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and were repatriated to Hawaii. They were buried in the US in the spring of 2005.

Sgt. Tycz's letter to "Mom and Pop" was an exceedingly noble one. Once again, he said:

"None of us want to go, but that’s our job and I pray I will never fail to do it. Your Marine Son, Neil.”



Lance Corporal Sam Sharp and members of Alpha Company, 3rd Recon, from a Stars and Stripes write up. Sharp is far left, standing. Back row, l-r: Sam Sharp, Dennis Cogbell, Bob Guerra, Howard Dean, Frank Farmer, Harry Presley, John Halavac. Middle row, Charley Cozort, Bob Plame. Bottom row,"Doc" Hines, Vincent Rubio, Ray George. Photo provided by Ms. Kelly West. Date and location of photo unknown. Presented by Vietnam Veterans Home Page.

"I pray I will never fail to do it." Those are powerful words. Powerful enough to force one to reflect on these men, and on Hill 665, RVN. What is this Hill 665? Where is it? Why was Breaker Patrol there?

To formulate meaningful responses to questions like this, we reconstructed the history that brought these brave six Marines and one Navy medic to Hill 665, northwest of Khe Sanh, RVN on May 9-10, 1967.

There is an enormous amount of very good information available from which to reconstruct this history, so much that we are hesitant to portray it here, fearing we have little value to add. We feel compelled by the heroism and courage of our Vietnam veterans to try.

Breaker Patrol fought in what are known as "The Hill Battles" of Khe Sanh that preceded the more well-known and widely discussed 77-day siege of that Marine combat base.

Edward F. Murphy authored the book,
The Hill Fights, the first battle of Khe Sanh. The cover description is cause enough to explore the history leading to Breaker Patrol:

"While the seventy-seven day siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968 remains one of the most highly publicized clashes of the Vietnam War, scant attention has been paid to the first battle of Khe Sanh, also known as 'the Hill Fights.' Although this harrowing combat in the spring of 1967 provided a grisly preview of the carnage to come at Khe Sanh, few are aware of the significance of the battles, or even their existence. For more than 30 years, virtually the only people who knew about the Hill Fights were the Marines who fought them."

Michael Archer, a former Marine who fought at Khe Sanh, recounts his experiences as a radio operator during the 1968 siege in his book, A Patch of Ground. Joni Bour reviewed this book and expressed the core of the story that has to be told over and over:

"There is no greater testimonial to the spirit of a Marine and a man than the battles for Khe Sanh ... Mr. Archer has touched the very core of the heart of the young Marine. Few writers have found a way to convey the depth of fortitude, strength and sheer will to live the way this author has."

Robert Topmiller, an assistant professor of history and a student of Khe Sanh, has urged us to think about these kinds of things:

"The loyalty and camaraderie that grew up among those who fought together in South Vietnam.

"The daily existence of Marines at Khe Sanh, with all of their idiosyncrasies, foibles, superstitions, dark humor and forced bravado under the most sustained barrage of enemy fire of the conflict ... (Bring these) outrageous characters to life (and feel) the everyday valor of the young Marines endeavoring to survive their time at 'The Worst Place on Earth.'"

No one in history has ever described the American man-at-arms better than General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. While accepting the Thayer Award at West Point in 1962,
MacArthur described the American soldier this way:

"Their story is known to all of you. It is the story of the American man-at-arms ... I regard him as one of the world's noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. He needs no eulogy from me; or from any other man. He has written his own history and written it in red on his enemy's breast. But when I think of his patience in adversity, of his courage under fire and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements."


Wearing a bloody bandage over the left side of his face, medic Thomas Cole of Richmond, Va., tends to a soldier of the First Cavalry Division This picture is from an unforgettable sequence of one man's dedication. Photo credit: Henri Huet, AP. Presented by Digital Journalist

It is this spirit that we hope you can grasp from our historical explanation of why these seven men were on Hill 665 near Khe Sanh. These are the things we wish to convey as we dare to summarize what has been described by so many others already. It's worth a try. This is history that cannot be told too often.

We'll tell it in sections, five sections, because we too are "filled with an emotion of admiration that we cannot put into (a few) words:"

From 1887 through 1957, the lines become clear. The divide is clear.

US Special Forces arrive in growing numbers, the South starts to crumble, and Khe Sanh gets on the map in 1962.

Khe Sanh gains in strategic importance, the Marines arrive, 1965

RT Breaker Patrol does its job, "The Hill Battles" of 1967

RT Breaker Patrol's heroic four return home after 38 years, 2005

___________________________

The book, Never without heroes, by Lawrence C. Vetter, Jr. is perhaps the most authoritative summation of the 3rd Recon’s service in Vietnam from 1965 – 1970. This is the first book to recount the story of a Marine reconnaissance battalion in Vietnam from the day of its arrival to its withdrawal. In Vietnam, Larry Vetter served as a platoon leader in Third Recon Battalion. He supplements his own recollections with Marine Corps records, exhaustive interviews with veterans, and correspondence to capture the bravery, and self-sacrifice of war.