3:20 | After his second tour in Vietnam, Owen Ditchfield was assigned to the personnel office at Fort Benning. One day, he received a letter from a Vietnamese interpreter who had been left behind and was trying desperately to get out. That started a process that would end happily for both of them. Another happy outcome awaited Ditchfield when he was pushed out by the drawdown.
Keywords : Owen Ditchfield Vietnam Fort Benning G-1 personnel Post Exchange (PX) 11th Armored Cavalry interpreter George Patton III Jimmy Carter teacher National Infantry Museum
Owen Ditchfield was sent to Vietnam by way of the Defense Information School in Indianapolis. He was preparing to be the public information officer for the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam. Once there, he nearly suffered an accidental death in the officers club, but he survived and went on to host reporters Charlie Black, Joe Galloway and Peter Arnett.
While he was chaperoning reporter Peter Arnett around Vietnam, Owen Ditchfield got to hear the exciting story of a soldier who lost his rifle during an ambush and had to rely on his knife. He was also there when Martha Raye invaded the colonel's trailer. The reporters he hosted ran the gamut from celebrated author Joe Galloway to guys who wouldn't leave the hotel in Saigon.
After his first Vietnam tour, Owen Ditchfield got command of a company at Fort Benning that played the aggressor in Ranger training exercises. His men were short timers, waiting for discharge, but he rallied them to do well by telling them why their job was so important. Then he was assigned a new executive officer, Buddy Allgood, who had a surprising physical characteristic.
For his second tour in Vietnam, Owen Ditchfield was assigned to the 101st Airborne in the A Shau Valley. Arriving just after the battle at Hamburger Hill, he was leading a patrol in the same area when the unit was pinned down by multiple enemy gun emplacements. A relief platoon ran into the same fire from the bunkers, but then Gordon Roberts stood up and charged the first position. Before it was over, four enemy positions were taken out and Roberts would deserve the Medal Of Honor.
After nearly getting wiped out at Hill 996, Owen Ditchfield's company spent some time clearing hilltops for landing zones near the Laotian border, where high tech surveillance equipment could trigger remote ambushes on the enemy's supply trails. He relates how life back at the base camp was nearly as dangerous as being on patrol in the jungle.
Halfway through his second Vietnam tour, Owen Ditchfield was put in charge of the division's Kit Carson Scout program, which used Viet Cong who had turned to the South's side. These soldiers were so useful that American units competed to recruit them as they finished their indoctrination.
He was flying in a Chinook, in transit to pick up some Kit Carson Scouts, when an enemy on the ground sprayed the aircraft with automatic weapons fire. Owen Ditchfield was leaning over reading a book and that meant that the bullet that hit him in the head did not kill him on the spot.
The Kit Carson Scouts were Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers who had defected to the South. Many of them worked with American units to give insight to the tactics of the enemy and Owen Ditchfield was in charge of the program in his division. He would take them to fire bases where one of them would give a startling demonstration to the American soldiers.
Owen Ditchfield reflects on some of the strange things he encountered in Vietnam and has an answer for why he does not suffer from bad psychological effects due to his service there. Then he gives some solid advice to future generations of soldiers.
He entered the Army with an ROTC commission and a journalism degree. During college, he was in the Pershing Rifles, who enjoyed firing a blank round during their drill routine to get everyone's attention. At Fort Benning, he moved right through the basic course, jump school and Ranger school.
He was the smallest guy in his Ranger class, so he got the heaviest loads. Owen Ditchfield found out how long he could go without sleep, food and water and still keep going. The testing was as much psychological as physical, as he found out when he was summoned to the front of the column in the middle of the night.
Owen Ditchfield was a brand new infantry officer when he was sent to an infantry battalion in the 1st Armored Division. He was immediately sent on maneuvers, which didn't go so well. His unit was activated during the Cuban missile crisis and sent to Fort Stewart in Georgia to prepare for action. What they really prepared for was a visit by the President.
In 1964, Owen Ditchfield was sent to Communications Zone Headquarters in France as a staff officer. The hours and tourism were great, but he knew he needed line company experience to advance so he transferred to a mechanized Airborne unit. Their vehicles were in disrepair but they had an ace in the hole.
The 1st Cavalry was the first Army unit to have it's own helicopters and the Vietnam War was the first war in which they were used tactically in large numbers. Pilot Pat Richardson flew for them sometimes, as well as supporting Australian and New Zealand units. He remembers a party during which a couple of American pilots decided they could drink the Australians under the table. Bad idea.
Newly minted Marine Lieutenant Paul Van Riper received orders to go to the advisors course at Fort Bragg. He was being groomed to advise the South Vietnamese Marines and, once he arrived in country, he forged a close relationship with his counterparts. They would be living and working closely together, more so than the ARVN advisors.
Instead of anti-war protestors, Pat Richardson was greeted by a Texas cattleman who bought him drinks. Decades later, looking at the wide variety of books about the Vietnam experience, he recommends reading the ones written by those who were actually there.
Bill Camper felt like the people of Hue supported the South Vietnamese soldiers he was advising. He made some headway encouraging those men to fight and he relates the story of how he taught them to advance through their own artillery barrage and surprise the enemy from the rear.
Jim Benson's mission was to hold and guard the Tu Cau bridge. The work load on his men was heavy and he details the routine of patrols and ambushes, both day and night, that left the Marines exhausted. At the same time, he had to constantly train new replacements who had no combat knowledge.
The battle for Hill 875 took five days but David Brown was only there for two of them. He heard the piece of shrapnel from the enemy mortar shell whizzing through the trees before it hit him in the chin. As the Medevac chopper rose, he was told to throw out his weapon. This was very difficult for him but they convinced him he wouldn't need it anymore. At the hospital, he noticed the man in the next bed had something odd on his nightstand. "You don't want to see."
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
Pat Richardson had served three years and was at at college when he went back for more. His first service was as a nuclear weapons technician, which instilled a good sense of procedure and precision. This helped him tremendously in his later duty as an aviator.
Pat Richardson's helicopter was blown up at Phu Loi, but he wasn't in it and it wasn't the enemy. While it was up on the rack for maintenance, from out of nowhere a rocket screamed in and it erupted in a huge fireball. As the men on the base scrambled for cover, it became clear that it wasn't Charlie shooting at them.
The radio operator said that a Bravo Report had come in. What's a Bravo report? Company commander Paul Van Riper was wondering but the main thing was that an NVA regiment was on the move. Before it was over, the Marines had a good haul of enemy arms and intelligence.
While serving in a remote area of Korea in the early sixties, Pat Richardson was surprised when the water purification unit disappeared overnight. Nobody knew where they were for quite a while. He flew in helicopters while there, never thinking that he would fly them himself someday.
Marine Paul Van Riper had high regard for the Vietnamese people and he had no tolerance for abuse of civilians in his unit. Ironic that he was called a baby killer and his family was subject to abuse when he returned from each tour. He attributes his lack of PTSD to staying on active duty, where the Vietnam veterans talked it out regularly, effectively becoming counselors for each other.
He was at artillery school manhandling howitzers in the mud. That all ended when Pat Richardson went to a briefing from an aviation officer signing up men for flight school. No mud up there. It meant two more years of service, but he still jumped at the chance.
The Vietnamese had a unit called the National Police Field Force and when a platoon of these men was sent to his battalion, Paul Van Riper insisted they be assigned to his company. He integrated them with his Marines and they functioned well together. He recalls a bunker clearing operation that had a surprise ending.
Most days, helicopter pilot Pat Richardson ferried troops on assaults. On other days, there were a variety of single ship missions including "sniffer" missions that were highly technical and a little boring. He would also ferry VIP's and special teams. He recounts one mission down to the Mekong Delta where he picked up an entirely new skill.
Omer McCants was born in a little Alabama town where everyone worked in the textile mills. He decided that was not for him, worked hard, and was the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college. ROTC attracted him and he began to think like a military man.
To promote espirit de corps, Marine company commander Paul Van Riper required the men to fix bayonets as they crossed the wire. They were very dedicated to their unit, as demonstrated by one young corporal who was repeatedly wounded, yet kept returning. Then there was the Sergeant Major who gave him the highest compliment a young Captain can receive.
Pilot Pat Richardson details the different models and modifications of the workhorse aircraft of Vietnam, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, known as the Huey. He reveals how it got that name, and why his commanding officer was doubly upset that one was accidentally destroyed by an errant rocket.
It was an easy commitment to make. Omer McCants stayed in the ROTC program so he would enter the Army as an officer, not a private. Not only that, but he was going to flight school. He had an advantage there because at Tuskegee he received flying lessons from the legendary Chief Anderson.
His father opened the newspaper and said to the boys, "Well, the war will be over pretty quick. They're sending the Marines." The Korean War did not end quickly, but for Paul Van Riper, that started a burning desire to become a Marine. His parents insisted on college, so he set his sights on being a Marine officer.
Based in a central location in Vietnam, helicopter pilot Pat Richardson was assigned a variety of missions and was always busy. When he could, he liked to refuel at a Navy base where he could get good chow. His own unit's cook was no slouch, and he had contacts all over to insure a good supply of treats like ice cream.