4:16 | He already had a pretty significant career, but Ralph Puckett went to Vietnam as a battalion commander and didn't waste any time getting into the field. His first matter of business was to assure his unit commanders that he had their backs.
Keywords : Ralph Puckett Ranger Fort Benning 101st Airborne Vietnam Salve Matheson rifle company
After twenty two years of service, Ralph Puckett retired and had a successful private life, but it was inevitable that he would reconnect with his beloved Rangers. His talent at building confidence is put to very good use at the Ranger school.
What do men need in a leader? Ralph Puckett draws on his long experience to answer that and then relate it to today's challenges for the military. He notes that some mistakes are repeated and that perhaps, "What we learned is that we don't learn anything from our wars."
He wanted to be a military aviator, but West Point had no aviation program. Impressed by the infantry leaders he encountered, Ralph Puckett decided there would be no truer test of himself than to become a combat infantry officer.
He was at jump school when he heard about the North Koreans invading the South. Determined to get in the war, young 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Puckett was at a stopover in Japan when he was told to report for possible selection for a special Ranger unit. He found out that the officers were already selected but he made a pitch to get on the team as a rifleman if nothing else. Come back tomorrow, he was told.
We were unprepared for war when we had to fight one in Korea. Ralph Puckett should know because his job was to take a small unit of new Rangers into the country for dangerous missions. They arrived at Pusan where the American forces had just barely avoided being pushed into the sea.
Piano wire? Those Rangers want everything, groused the supply officer. When the volunteer company got into Korea, though, they only had the most basic cold weather gear. The first mission for company commander Ralph Puckett and his men was to rout North Korean stragglers and units left behind when they retreated Northward.
It was called Hill 205. The small Ranger company was told to take and hold the hill. They did that as long as they could but Ralph Puckett and his men had to go through hell to do it. Waves of Chinese attackers had him calling in very close artillery strikes. He lay there, unable to move after three wounds, watching the Chinese bayonet wounded Rangers. Then two figures charged up the hill.
Both feet were severely injured so Ralph Puckett had some serious hospital time coming up. Evacuated from Korea to Japan, then back to Fort Benning, he could, at least, see his family. Then came a knock on the door and two pretty girls walked in. If only they knew what he had just told his father.
Battalion commander Ralph Puckett recounts the story of a night long attack by Viet Cong and NVA Regulars on a position held by one of his companies. He was grateful they had a Forward Observer to coordinate artillery support and helicopters for resupply, things he lacked in Korea. For his leadership during this attack, Puckett was awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross.
It was better to put men in the field and leave them there. That was the philosophy of Battalion commander Ralph Puckett in Vietnam, where some commanders inserted and then quickly withdrew their troops. When the operation was over, the reward was beer and steak and ice cream. Being prepared was very important to him and he illustrates that principle with a story about some soldiers who were not.
It was nearly time to go home and Ralph Puckett was trying to rally his successor's spirits while showing him around the battalion's operations. Rely on your experienced men, that was his key point. His homecoming was bittersweet because his father was very ill but he was joyous to be reunited with his wife and children.
Ralph Puckett had two homecomings, from Korea and Vietnam. The first was all joyous, the second bittersweet. Despite the anti-war feelings so prevalent at the time, he experienced gratitude and respect in public.
After suffering severe wounds in Korea, Ralph Puckett spent two years at the Ranger Department in various training assignments. Then he went to a command assignment in Puerto Rico, a "go to war" company. He was given the job of setting up a short orientation school, experience that would help him on his next assignment.
It was an interesting assignment. Help the Columbian Army establish a Ranger training school and get it going. Ralph Puckett built up the program from nothing and he knew it was going to be very good, but he did have one problem, what to call the Columbian Rangers?
Ralph Puckett's favorite tour was the three years he spent in Germany with a Special Forces Group. He had his family there and the Ranger learned a lot from the assignment. It was early on for Vietnam, but he heard stories and began reading up on it. Back in the States in a Pentagon job, he asked to be put on the list to go.
Sailing from Okinawa to Vietnam on an LST was miserable for Willard Womack, thanks to the bobbing of the landing craft on the waves and the diesel exhaust in his air vent. Once in country, he was surprised how behind the times everything was. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
There were 87 men on some high ground surrounded by Viet Cong and Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham had a problem. There was only room for one ship at a time to land in the tiny landing zone they had hacked out of the bush. It would be one at a time so he spiraled down for the first load. Then he felt like a sledgehammer hit his leg.
As the American advisor argued with his Vietnamese counterpart over the radio, Willard Womack, an Army pilot stuck in transit, could hear the frustration mounting. The battle of Ap Bac could not be won with these tactics. Eventually, the evacuation was made and, weeks later, several of the aviators involved hitched a ride to Saigon for a night of carousing. Pt 2 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
Wherever there are weapons, there is always the potential for accidents. Army pilot Willard Womack recalls several times when carelessness caused trouble during his tour in Vietnam. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
Willard Womack was nervously awaiting the news of what happened to the helicopter carrying some of his friends who had just participated in the Battle of Ap Bac, a crucial turning point early in the war. They had come though that unscathed but were now missing. Decades later, he received an email that brought the memories flooding back. Part 3 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
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.
It was all advisors when Willard Womack went to Vietnam. The Army pilot was part of the early effort to help the South resist the insurgency. The rules for the advisors were very stringent and often stymied the progress of the war. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
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.
Willard Womack gives his account of the Battle of Ap Bac, a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. It begins with him hitching a flight to Saigon to pick up the pay for his outfit. Detoured on his way back to his base, he saw a group of men listening intently to a firefight on a radio. Part 1 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
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.
After receiving his pilot's license through Army ROTC, Willard Womack was committed to Army flight school. There he met an instructor who reminded him of someone and he made it the top of his class. Flying came naturally to him, it seemed. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
He'd always wanted to fly, so when Don Chapman found out that the Navy would accept cadets with two years of college, he left engineering school in his third year and enlisted. He made his way through flight schools and aircraft until he was flying the fast jet fighters.
Willard Womack was a pilot in the Army but everyone in the Army has other duties and his was supply. As supply officer, he had a first row seat to the spectacle of Army bureaucracy and reveals how the last scene of Indiana Jones just might be true, that there are stacks of things around the world lost in paperwork. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
It was all business aboard the USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin, with around the clock operations. F-4 pilot Don Chapman was also the scheduling officer and he was always looking for a little sleep. At least the accommodations were luxurious compared to the bush.
After flight school, Willard Womack was sent to a tiny detachment with no planes. It's purpose was to set up and run combat air fields. The unit was sent to Okinawa to run an airfield there where a helicopter company was based. That company went off on a training mission to the Philippines and didn't come back. Womack and his unit soon followed to a place most had never heard of, Vietnam. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman was carrier based in the Gulf of Tonkin. His missions were all carried out over North Vietnam. Photo escort was his favorite mission because you could fly really fast. He saw a lot of tracers, but was never hit. He never got one of those MIG's he chased, either.
In Vietnam, Army pilot Willard Womack visited Saigon several times, usually because he was ferrying someone around but he had a few occasions to get out and see the place. He remembers a wild ride in a pedicab in the chaotic traffic. This was way more exciting than his duty, which was mostly ferrying people around in a Cessna. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman had to stand two hour watches in his cockpit, waiting for word to go when needed. When he was in action, the rules of engagement really grated on him and, from his experience, hindered the progress of the war.
There was not much for Willard Womack to do at the Soc Trang air field early in the war. He flew small observation planes to support a helicopter unit and he was the supply officer. The unit had an exotic pet, which supplied some laughs, and there were nightly movies. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
The USS Constellation carried an entire air wing with fighters, attack aircraft and all the support aircraft needed to carry out missions over North Vietnam. F-4 pilot Don Chapman describes the action when one of his fellow pilots was shot down right at the waters edge and nearby villagers came out shooting.
The plane was a Cessna Bird Dog and Willard Womack flew it in support of a helicopter company, frequently on evacuation missions. The troops were all Vietnamese, and when the unit's flight surgeon found out what their doctors were actually doing at the evacuation hospital, they stopped flying the rescue missions for them. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Navy F-4 pilot Don Chapman explains why medals are a sore subject with him. What were they worth when you were encouraged to write yourself up to receive them? He does have a warm appreciation for the Navy, which taught him the skills to make a good living after his service.
Army pilot Willard Womack explains how his Air Medals are no big deal because they were automatic with the number of combat missions flown. And in a guerrilla war like Vietnam, every flight was a combat mission. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
Army pilot Willard Womack's job was to support a helicopter company in his spotter plane, usually from above the action. He tells how he came to be just 300 feet off the ground the only time he took a round in the plane. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)