What was it like to be one of the few Americans within a Special Forces Mike Force during the Vietnam War? Follow the author on his secret missions with the Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
By Major (Ret) Tom Burke
It has been fifty years since that mission when our MIKE Force Company was sent to provide security for rebuilding a Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. As we were about to set out, we were given an additional mission of finding some lost military hardware. Half a century has passed since we saw an abandoned Cambodian airfield, just across the border from the camp, light up in the middle of the night, since the elephant came rumbling through the jungle, since we were inspected by a US Air Force’s reconnaissance jet, and since a machete-wielding Montagnard soldier saved my life. I remember it all like it happened yesterday.
On March 1st, 1970, 221 Company of the Pleiku MIKE Force (Detachment B 20, 5th Special Forces Gp.) received an Operations Order instructing us to provide security for the rebuilding of Special Force’s camp at BuPrang. The camp had been pretty much destroyed during the North Vietnamese Army’s siege, which started in late October and ended in early December 1969.The MIKE Force (Mobile Strike) was a light airborne infantry unit composed, in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, of Montagnards tribal members, commonly referred to as “Yards.” Most of these fighters came from the Rhade and Jarai tribes.”
The Montagnards? They were caught in the middle; between the US and the Vietnamese, between the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, (VC)”. They were hated by the South Vietnamese, who considered them savages. The Yards hated the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese government for the way they treated them. “Their most significant common traits were a deep hostility toward the Vietnamese and a strong desire to be left alone.”
With the introduction of US Special Forces into the Central Highlands along the borders of Cambodia and Laos in 1962, the Montagnards developed a unique relationship with their green-hatted friends. “…The hill people…developed a deep and lasting affinity for the Special Forces soldier that was genuinely reciprocated. These primitive people responded to the kindness and consideration shown to them with uncommon loyalty”.
These indigenous members of the unit were hired, trained, and led by US Army Special Forces. The Yards grew up in the jungle, living a nomadic “slash and burn” lifestyle. tribal community would settle an area and clear the vegetation by hacking and burning it away. They would then farm the land until the soil was no longer productive. Then they would move to another area and repeat the process. Our Montagnard comrades lived and played in the jungle. When on an operation, I ate what they ate. There were many meals that I was afraid to ask what am I eating.
On a deployment, if they were “loose and goofy,” I was somewhat relaxed. When they became quiet and cautious, my “pucker factor” was high. Not enough can be said about their fighting abilities or their loyalty to US Army Special Forces.
While the exact origins of the MIKE Force are disputed, it was activated sometime in the mid-1960. Each Corps had its own MIKE Force, which was responsible for the Special Forces requirement of that Corps.
Additionally, a MIKE force was stationed in Nha Trang (Nha Trang is a coastal resort city on the South China Sea.). They were a reaction force for the whole of Vietnam. Nha Trang was also the location of the headquarters of the 5th Special Forces Group.
The first II Corps MIKE Force operation as occurring in February 1965 at Vung Ro Bay, Vietnam, about 80km north of Nha Trang.
During my time in Vietnam (1969-70), we had three primary missions, Reconnaissance in Force, as a Reaction Force, and Special Missions. In a Reconnaissance in Force operation, a company or battalion was given a “box” on a map and told to find out what was there. Our AO’s were almost exclusively along the borders of Laos and Cambodia. There were never friendly personnel in our “box.” The Reaction Force’s mission was to help defend the A-Camps. During my tour, we participated in the defense of Ben Het, (A-244)13, Bu Prang (A-236), and Dak Seang (A-243). Special Missions were classified operations tasked from the Corps or higher.
In Pleiku, The MIKE Force consisted of three infantry battalions; a fourth battalion was located in Kontum. Each battalion had three infantry companies. Each company had an HQ element and four rifle platoons. There were approximately 120 Yards in each company. Usually, a first lieutenant was the company commander, and the NCOs were the platoon leaders. As a light airborne infantry unit, the company’s weapons were M-16s, M-60 machine guns, a 60mm mortar, and LAWs (Light Antitank Weapon, this could also be used against bunkers and buildings.)I always tell friends that I was “volunteered” into the MIKE Force. I had been working at the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam’s RECONDO School as a Special Forces Medical instructor and as a reaction force medic. When a reaction force was sent out to assist a reconnaissance team in trouble, I was their medic.
In late June of 1969, the siege of the Special Forces camp at Ben Het, which started in February of 1969, continued. Ben Het is located at the point where Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos meet. It sits aside an exit from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the NVA’s logistical Base Area – 609I was “volunteered” to go to the MIKE Force. I didn’t like to be “volunteered.” I had volunteered for the Army in 1966. Then I volunteered to become a paratrooper, then Special Forces. This led me to volunteer for Vietnam.14 The MIKE Force had taken a lot of causalities and was in need of medics with combat experience. At that time, I was the only medic at RECONDO School who met that criteria. Off I went. In less than 24 hours, I was with the 2nd MIKE Force battalion. I thought I was going to be a battalion medic. Much to my surprise, I instantly became an infantry platoon leader in the battalion’s 221 Company.
Once in the MIKE Force, “I volunteered” to stay on. By November 1969, I was the senior man in the Company, and in accordance with the unofficial policy, I was the Company commander. This unofficial policy was intended so that the “Yards” had a leader that they knew and trusted. In September 1969, I received a new partner SP-5 Ronnie Nash. Ronnie had extended his tour in Vietnam so he could serve with Special Forces. This was a policy implemented by MACV. Ronnie had come from an engineer unit with no Special Forces training.
He was a quick understudy. Until March 1970, Ronnie and I would be the only two Americans with the company. Occasionally we would receive a 2 or 3 man US Artillery Forward Observer team.
That November, I lead the Company into the siege of Bu Prang. I ran the company with Ronnie and a 3 man US Forward Observer Team. The battalion dug in on a hilltop about 2 kilometers south of BuPrang. From there, we conducted offensive operations into the trail networks hidden by the thick jungle. I stayed as the Company commander until my last operation when CPT Gordon Vogel joined us. Gordon was a member of the Florida National Guard. He had volunteered for active duty with Special Forces in Vietnam. He was an experienced infantry officer, and he been the 2nd Battalion’s commander during the siege of Bu Prang. We had become good friends from our “stand-down” times.
Also assigned to Det. B-20 were members of the Australian Training Team Vietnam (ATTV). Most of these soldiers were from the SAS, Special Air Service, Australian Special Forces. Some of them had fought the communist insurgency in Malaya and Borneo. All were well versed in jungle warfare. They are the cousins of Britain’s famous Special Air Service.
Our Australian counterparts were a cast of characters, some, ‘’often larger than life”. There was one major; “…he always rode helicopters with his feet on the outside skids. His combat kit was a torn T-shirt, an M-16, and a Foster’s Lager (beer); that’s how he went in, and that’s how we brought him out…he was a mean sonofabitch!”
The Viper Den, the RF-101 Voodoo Exposure, and the Thermite Grenades.
A last-minute change to the Operations Order sent us about 15 kilometers southeast of BuPrang to find some missing military equipment. This was a Search and Recovery mission. There was a circled X on the briefing map. For the first time, we carried thermite grenades. These were for the destruction of the equipment. Thermite burns around 4,000F and will melt most metals. Three days were wasted covering about 12 square kilometers of triple canopy jungle. The triple canopy jungle consisted of brush and vines up to eight to ten feet in height. Then there was a middle layer of trees again with vines. Finally, the upper canopy was a variety of different species of tall trees. Trying to move through this dense wall of vegetation was at times impossible. Trying to find the missing item that fell into the same category, impossible.
After reporting our fruitless search, we were ordered to extend our search. We were told was to keep looking, “You’ll know the object when you see it.” An additional two days were spent searching, but nothing was found.
The Viper Den
We came across a huge sinkhole with a twenty-foot vertical shaft in the middle of the jungle during the extended search. I thought that this would be a good cache location and decided to investigate. I descended into the shaft on a thick vine.
Once I got down into the cavern and, having looked around, I backed up. I was reaching behind me with my left hand to find the large flat rock I had seen as we entered. As I turned back around to my front, there was Y-Tote, my Jarai company commander, running at me with a raised machete. In a picosecond, I saw my whole life pass by. Y-Tote grabbed my jacket’s collar and threw me forward. Turning back around, Y-Tote was standing there and shoved an almost behead viper into my face. He had a big shit-eating grin on his face for saving my life. (Reaching back, I was about to put my hand on top of the viper.). I was so scared and surprised that I ran straight up the vertical shaft to the roaring laughter of the Yards.
The Voodoo that Flew Over the “Moons”
On the second day of our journey, returning to our original Area of Operations (AO), we came to the large flat rolling hills that are found in southern II Corps. These are bald hills with knee-high grass. They can be 1-4 or more kilometers long and half as wide. They are separated by a triple canopy jungle, which can be 1-2 kilometers in width.
While crossing one, I turned around to look at the formation. I noticed in the distant sky a black smoke trail. A few minutes later, I looked back and recognized it as an RF-101 Voodoo, a USAF reconnaissance jet. In the nose was a huge camera. The jet flew so low that I could see the camera’s shutter opening and closing. As it flew over, I saw the pilot, visor down and mask on, looking down at us. He made a racetrack and came back for another look. We did not have the ground-to-air radios, so communications was impossible. He then came back for a third look. That is when the light bulb in my head turned on, “He doesn’t know who we are!” I thought. As he came in, Captain Gordon Vogel and I turned our back to the aircraft, and only as an American GIs would do, we “mooned” the pilot. Coming around on his fourth pass, he dipped the left wing, and looking down, gave us a hand salute and then rocked the wings as he left. The pilot gave the Voodoo some gas, and with a burst of black smoke and some flame from the exhaust, headed directly towards the Cambodia border.
I like to think that our naked butts became pin-ups in some USAF photo interpretation office. Afterward, Vogel and I were surprised that we never said a word to each other but had simultaneously decided to “moon” the pilot.
Today I’m sure that the aircraft’s target was Camp LeRolland’s airfield. This makes sense based on what we witnessed a few days later.
The Thermite Grenades
Our route crossed another rolling hill that led, on the downward sloping side toward the jungle’s tree line. As the point or lead platoon headed down the slope, they came under small-arms fire. Immediately, the platoons on the left and right maneuvered into envelopment or a pincer movement toward the point of contact. The lead platoon laid down a base of the fire. With the three platoons firing into the tree line, whoever was there withdrew back into the jungle.
We set up a perimeter and started searching for the enemy. Very soon thereafter, we found a cache of mortar rounds, uniforms, ponchos, blankets, and thousands and thousands of loose AK-47 ammo lying in a large pit.
We let the Yards pick through what we had found. When they were finished, we used some C-4 explosives to destroy the mortar rounds. Now the question was: “how do we get rid of the loose ammo?”
Vogel and I thought we should use the thermite grenades on the ammo. We ignored SP-5 Ronnie Nash’s advice against doing this. We placed whatever clothing was leftover on top of the ammo. Then, standing on opposite sides of the pit, we each tossed in a grenade.
DUH! Within 10 seconds, the rounds started cooking off. Gordon and I dove into the ground, trying to become moles digging into the hard red clay. We stayed in that position, on our bellies, for about fifteen minutes as the exploding ammo whizzed all around us. In the background, I could hear Ronnie Nash and the Yards laughing their asses off at our predicament. They were smart enough to move far away before we started. Well, at least the ammunition was turned into a slag pile
The “Villa,” believed to have been built by the French, was located about 9.5 kilometers east of the SF camp at BuPrang. No one seems to know who owned it. I’m guessing it was built in the 1920-30s. The walls were 12+ inches of concrete. With no signs of agriculture activity, I believe that it was used as a hunting lodge.
As the photo shows, there were many previous “arguments” over ownership. We also had to evict the tenants, maybe a squad. They were last seen heading west, crossing the Military Demarcation Line into Cambodia. During our assault, we used two LAWs for our fire support. I told the Yards to aim at the openings. I was lucky they hit the building.
We dug in around the building in old foxholes. I set my CP on the second floor, looking to the west, into Cambodia. It soon proved to be the right location. We used the Villa as our patrol base for the next two days.
Soon after we had cleared and secured the building and perimeter, my oldest Yard, Y-Bai, a platoon sergeant in his fifties, came and asked if he could have the banister. (Inside the house, there were beautiful spiral staircases leading to the second floor.) I said sure and figured he wanted it for firewood. Nope. He took the banister apart, cut it into about 6″ sections, and distributed it. Then he and the other Yards started carving each section. They were making pipes. Apparently, they recognized the wood as excellent for pipe making. The lesson learned here; nothing went to waste with the Montagnards.
Two months earlier, at the village of Plei Morong, when VC initiated a night attack by stampeding water buffaloes at the perimeter. The Yards shot at the buffaloes first. The next morning at first light, they asked if they could have the carcasses. Sure I said, I was angry with the village chief for not providing us with any warning of the previous night’s attack. I hoped the loss of the animals would be a lesson to him; it wasn’t. I told the Yards that we had to move ASAP; in less the ninety minutes, those animals were cleaned down to the bone. It was amazing to watch how they organized and distributed the remains. As I said, nothing ever goes to waste with these mountain people.
The Enemy Elephant
During the second day at the Villa, I took a patrol across the Military Demarcation Line and toward the border. We got down into the triple canopy that is between the bald rolling hills surrounding BuPrang.
As we were moving, it suddenly sounded like a freight train was coming. The Yards were spooked! They started spreading apart as the noise got louder. Well, there goes the patrol’s formation, I thought. All I heard was the breaking brush and the snapping of trees. Suddenly, an elephant appeared with a lone figure riding on top. This guy slowed the beast down to a sauntering walk. I could see that he was eyeballing us. He gave me a sneer when I looked at him. I wanted to stop the elephant jockey, but the Yards wanted nothing to do with the beast he was riding. The driver just sped up and turned west back towards Cambodia.
Later I found out that the Yards were very superstitious about meeting elephants in the jungle (I never fully understood why.) Then they told me that the guy was probably a VC/NVA out to find us. The Yards wanted nothing to do with him or his elephant.
They were afraid of what the beast might do if we took the handler as a prisoner. Thinking about it later, I realized that they were probably right. To take that beast down, we would’ve had to use an M-60 and a LAW. In July 1966, the CIA had identified Camp LeRolland as a transshipment point. “It was supplied from Camp Le Rolland, thence through, and to Buon Y Miar Klang. Supplies were carried on elephants to the camp.”
Our Second Night at the Villa
As noted, our CP was on the second floor, looking to the west into Cambodia. Just after midnight, security awoke me and told me to look at the “Lights.” Peering over the windowsill, I was shocked to see lights across the border. We went to 100% alert and extended our listening post out about a kilometer.
My map showed the abandoned French airfield at Camp LeRolland that was just across the border. About 2 kilometers inside, Cambodia was lit up. Being almost 10 kilometers south of the airfield, we could see that the whole length of the 3,800-foot runway was awash with man-made illumination!
Our only communication was with Bu Prang. I radioed them and reported the activity. They could not see the airfield from the camp since they were at a slightly lower elevation. They contacted the B-Team, B-23, in Ban Me Thuot. The B-Team knew nothing and just told me to “Observe and Report.”
Around 00:30, a small silhouette was visible landing, and occasionally an aircraft’s sounds were audible. Now this continued, a single landing and takeoff, about every 20-30 minutes, for the next 4-5 hours, until just before Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight. Then there was SILENCE, and when the lights went out, DARKNESS returned to the jungle’s landscape.
I expected something to happen around sunrise, but nothing did. Both the camp and the B-team (B-23) had no information about the activity we had seen at LeRolland.
Right after sunrise, we left the villa. I wanted to put some distance between that place and us. It was less than 10 km to Bu Prang, so we covered this distance rather quickly. After we closed on the camp, we resumed our original mission of providing security
What did we witness at Camp LeRolland, Cambodia? An Analysis.
It’s 50 over years since this incident occurred, and information has been declassified.
Around the time of our observation, Prince Sihanouk, the leader of Cambodia, would be overthrown in a bloodless coup (March 1970), and the US-friendly prime minister (LT General) Lon Nol came into power. Soon Lon Nol was asking for US support to rid the country of the NVA. They, the NVA, occupied all of Cambodia’s border provinces with South Vietnam. Just north of the LeRolland airfield was the NVA’s logistical Base Area – 740, “This was a major area in Cambodia along the Darlac, Quang Duc Province border…” that was used by NVA transportation units as a transshipment point for supplies destined for South Vietnam from Cambodia. This location was responsible for Infiltrating supplies and soldiers into the Darlac and Quang Duc provinces of South Vietnam. In the same CIA report referenced earlier, Camp LeRolland, in February 1967, is again identified, “…A convoy of 15 GMC trucks carried 22 tons of rice, 60 sacks of dried fish, and 20 tins of fish sauce from Camp LeRolland to Buon Mour.”
Author Daniel Ford in his 2018 book, “Cowboy: The Interpreter Who Became a Soldier, a Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam,” points out that Camp Le Rolland was used as a training area for FULRO in the early 1960s. In 4-6 weeks, the US and South Vietnam forces would invade Cambodia in an attempt to force the NVA out (30 April 1970). Reinforced elements of the US 4th Infantry Division would assist the South Vietnamese Army in Operation “Binh Tay” against the NVA’s logistical Base Area -740.
Were these aircraft part of the April invasion? I doubt it due to the secrecy involved in the planning. The planning was “word of mouth only” in both the US and Vietnamese governments. South Vietnam’s Vice President, Nguyen Cao Ky, twice secretly visited Lon Nol in early April 1970. Was this a staging for friendly elements of the Cambodian Army (FARK/FANK) south of this base area to support the upcoming invasion? That is another possibility. But the FARK was not a strong military force. “The Cambodian Army has with some exceptions performed poorly against its forces. Its morale is still generally high, but it presently is manifestly incapable of resisting anything more than small-scale attacks, and a lengthy period of training will be necessary before it will be an effective fighting force.”
One possible Cambodian fighting force that could have been involved is the Khmer Serei. “Members of both the Khmer Kampuchea Krom (Khmer Krom) and the Khmer Serei were trained by the US military for clandestine operations during the Second Indochina War as part of MIKE Force and were partly financed and armed by the Central Intelligence Agency. At their peak in 1968, the Khmer Serei and related forces were thought to number up to 8000 men.” Taylor Owen’s analysis of the USAF’s bombing of Cambodia (“Sideshow? A Spatio-Historical Analysis of the US Bombardment of Cambodia, 1965-1973”) quotes former CIA Director William Colby, “Lon Nol may well have been encouraged by the fact that the US was working with Son Nhnoc Thanh (From 1955 -1959 Thanh organized a guerrilla war campaign against Sihanouk. In 1956 with US aid, he created the Khmer Serei.
In the early 1960s, US Special Forces began recruiting the Khmer Serei into its CIDG program. It is believed they assisted Project Gamma’s intelligence operations in Cambodia.), the obvious conclusion for him…was that he would be given US support.” Owen continues quoting Kiernan “there is, in fact, no evidence of CIA involvement in the 1970 events, but a good deal of evidence points to a role played by sections of the US military-intelligence establishment and the (US) Army Special Forces. Robert Gillespie wrote in “Black Ops Vietnam, The Operational History of MACVSOG” that: “One of the covert operations run by the 5th SFG in South Vietnam was Project Gamma, an intelligence operation…whose mission in 1969 was to confirm the cooperation between Prince Sihanouk and the North Vietnamese.”
“One of the most secret (special operations) was Project GAMMA, a unilateral, clandestine intelligence collection operation targeted against NVA/VC base areas in Cambodia and the Cambodian government’s complicity with the NVA/VC forces.” “Soon Project GAMMA was producing 65 percent of the information on NVA locations and strengths in Cambodia and a full 75 percent of the information on NVA installations.”
Matthew Jagel writes in “Son Ngoc Than, The United States, And the Transformation of Cambodia” that “What is clear is that the Khmer Serei was a highly respected and utilized force under the direction of American Special Forces during the war. Thanh was crucial in the recruitment of Khmer Serei to the American cause, and he was also a key figure, along with American officials, in the coup that unseated Sihanouk.” “The first noted discovery of Khmer (CIDG) soldiers in Phnom Penh was by a correspondent who had spent years in Vietnam…A second correspondent reported speaking with a Khmer soldier who told him he had been in Phnom Penh since March. (1970)”.
Was this a SOG/CCS operation? Probably not. There were four hundred and fifty-four (454) “Salem House” operations in Cambodia in 1969. Robert M. Gillespie writes in “Black Ops Vietnam…” that “During the 1969 sieges of BuPrang and Duc Lap Special Forces Camps in the Central Highlands, MACSOG was tasked with locating PAVN (NVA) artillery positions in Cambodia.
Reginald H Brockwell writing about “Battle of LZ Kate” wrote, that after the siege of Kate, while in Ban Me Thout, “SGT Dan Pierelli (CPT William Albracht’s SF NCO during the siege of and the Escape and Evasion from Firebase Kate) learned that the Studies and Observation Group (SOG) Command and Control South had teams operating secretly in Cambodia near Kate and were aware of the situation.”
The least plausible explanation is that this was an operation by the North Vietnamese or Cambodian Air Force. There are two reasons that either of these Air Forces. The air forces of both countries did not have that type of airlift and surge capacity. What we witnessed was a constant flow of planes at the rate of 2-3 aircraft per hour for 4-5 hours. Our airborne and ground-based radars would have noticed any North Vietnamese and Cambodian air activity. “Some use might be made of an airlift, although resort to such a procedure would be highly unlikely, considering allied air superiority.”
Four months after the siege, what was the condition of the airfield and the camp? In November 1969, during the siege of Fire Support Base Kate, southeast of BuPrang, Special Forces Captain Bill Albracht had to declare a “Tactical Emergency” to silence the 130mm guns at Camp Rolland. The US Defense Attaché Office in Phnom Penh reported the effectiveness of the bombing; “On 22 November 1969, We were flown from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom airfield, northwest of Dak Dam, and proceeded to Dak Dam by convoy, one hour and twenty minutes en route. It seems that the village and the adjacent military outpost, Camp Le Rolland, had been plastered by a series of air raids from about mid-October until 18 November. It was probably VNAF or, possibly, 7th U.S. Air Force aircraft making the attack. They had pretty well blasted the village, including the school, and virtually destroyed Camp Le Rolland; they’d used 500 or 1000 pound bombs, napalm, and staffing to boot…Commissioner Gorham of the ICC (the Canadian and a strong supporter of the U.S. position) asked most of the questions, including those concerning the possibility of the Communists using the area in and around the village to emplace artillery for firing across the border…The US Air Attaché …Did find artillery emplacements.” Today, I believe that mission of the RF-101 was to ascertain the runway’s condition. This was, and still is, a 3,800- foot dirt strip.
When we returned to Pleiku, no one seemed interested. The C-team S-2 (Intelligence), which was located directly across the street from the MIKE Force compound, never asked any questions.
What Did We Witness?
I think what we witnessed was the early movement of Khmer Kron / Khmer Serei troops into Cambodia. In “253. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon” Kissinger recommends under “Cross-border operations,” “Khmer Krom and Khmer Serai Deployment—There are 3,500 Cambodian ethnics forces now in South Vietnam equipped and trained. They are part of the Special Forces. Lon Nol asked for them, and Ambassador Bunker recommends that four battalions of them be airlifted to Phnom Penh with their equipment. They would strengthen Cambodian forces at Phnom Penh and have an important desirable psychological effect in Cambodia. They lack logistical support, however, and we will have to arrange to provide it. This can be done through the South Vietnamese”.
I believe, based upon the US’s military (Special Forces) and political (CIA’s) involvement with the Khmer Serei, these were what landed at Camp LeRolland. US airlift assets facilitated this movement. My years as a paratrooper tell me that the sounds we heard came from C-130’s reversing their propellers upon landing. The government in Saigon and at the US National level, both political and military, never expected that three Americans and 100+ Yards would be in a position to witness the activity at the airfield.
Why the secrecy? The only plausible answer is “deniability” of US involvement. SOG and the USAF were conducting covert operations in Cambodia at this time. The open involvement of US Forces would occur on April 30th, 1970.
We returned to Pleiku around the 20th of March 1970. We were told that the battalion would be converted into a Regional Forces / Popular Forces (RF/PF) unit on 27 March.
I didn’t know at that time, but this was my last MIKE Force operation. My DEROS (Date Estimated Return from Over Seas) was approaching; the year had passed very quickly. Then the NVA launched their Spring Offensive.
On April 1st, the NVA initiated their Spring Offensive; in the Central Highlands, their objective was the Special Forces Camps at Dak Seang and II Corps’ northernmost camp, Dak Pek.
The 2nd MIKE Force battalion knew the area well. Six months prior to this offensive (October 1969), we had been deployed west of Dak Seang along the Laotian border to conduct a Reconnaissance in Force operation48 concentrating around the Dak Rolong River Valley. We found a hornet’s nest of several battalion-size base camps under construction.
Soon after the start of this April offensive, most all of the II Corps MIKE Force was involved as a Reaction Force for the defense of Dak Seang. Once inserted, the battalions were pinned down on the LZ outside of the camp.
I was told that I was too “short” to get into this fight. But, no one ordered me not to go. With the effort to support this operation, I was sort of forgotten. The detachment’s administration section hadn’t officially given me my DEROS date yet.
After a couple of days helping in the compound, I decided to get up to Dak Seang. It was simple, catch a chopper from Pleiku to Dak To then locate a chopper going into Dak Seang. I found one and spoke with the pilot. He told me that he was going in fast and wasn’t landing, but I was welcome to kick out the ammo and water cans then jump after them. “Sure,” I said.
As the Warrant Officer was doing the pre-flight checks, I was spotted by Captain Gordon Vogel, who said: “What the fuck are you doing here? Get off; you’re not going.” This led to a very heated argument. Then he put his arm around my shoulder and said, in a fatherly fashion, “Tom; you’re gonna get yourself killed, now go home.” Something clicked; I had given it my best shot. I said. “Ok.” In retrospect, I know that Gordon probably saved my life that day. That was the last time I ever saw of Gordon. I heard that he returned home to Florida and continued his service in the National Guard
SP-5 Ronnie Nash was promoted to Staff Sargent. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions at the siege of Dak Seang. Ronnie died in 2019 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Hopping a chopper back to Pleiku, I got back to the MIKE Force compound late that afternoon. I went into Big Marty’s Team House; I was greeted by a “Where the hell have you been? You are ten-day past your DEROS.” With President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” Policy, American tours were shortened. I headed home.
When I finally reached Ft. Lewis, WA, and was discharged, my DD-214 listed my total time of service as 3 years, 6 months, and 14 days.
The 6 months came from an extension of service to serve in Vietnam. The 14 days? It seems that I was 14 days past the end of my enlistment and my DEROS. I’d make it home for my 23rd birthday.
The mission to Bu Prang 50 years ago was my last one. Someone once said: “The MIKE Force? You’re absolutely insane.” That’s 100 percent true. Some crazy, unimaginable events occurred in the Central Highlands of Vietnam when we fought alongside the Montagnards half a century ago.
Captain Mike McCarten, USN, (Ret.)
LTC Rick Dyer, USAFR, (Ret.)
Captain Bill Albracht, US Army, The Hero of FSB Kate, and a member of the Kontum MIKE Force.
1st Lieutenant Dale Abbuhl, US Army, the former MIKE Force assistant adjutant and the finance officer.
Mike, Rick, Bill, and Dale, Thank You for your help and encouragement in writing this true adventure story.
Tom Burke, the author, is a retired Army major who spent fifteen years in Special Forces. He now resides in Northwest Montana.
This article originally appeared in “Dispatches” the monthly publication of Together We Served – August 2021. Here’s the direct link: https://army.togetherweserved.com/army/newsletter2/97/newsletter.html
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