"Kingston's 1st Tour in Vietnam"
Courtesy of John Collins, C-13 Honorary Member
Senior Advisor to RVN Rangers
On all of my tours to Vietnam -- and I’ve been there four times if you include my tour with SOG -- I always went to Travis AFB and stayed the night before getting on the aircraft to go off to Vietnam (or vice versa). That is where I kind of mentally separated myself from a world with the United States and the family and what I was getting into when I arrived in Vietnam. To me, that was a technique I used, and I recommend it to anybody else. It worked for me, at least.
When I got to Vietnam, I was in Saigon initially, assigned as the senior adviser of the RVN Rangers. For some reason they put that slot in the J3 shop -- the operational shop at MACV. I used to have dinner quite often with Jack Foss who retired as a lieutenant general, and Dave Person, who retired as a colonel and worked for me when I had the JFK Center later. They were the personnel assignment officers in J-l, MACV who brought me in as the senior adviser to the RVN Rangers. They needed somebody and they thought I could do the job. I told them I wanted a US battalion and I wasn’t going to leave country until I got one. They both laughed and Jack pulled out two pieces of bond paper, single spaced with a list of infantry lieutenant colonels who wanted a US battalion. I said, “See that blank space at the bottom? Put my name down there.”
The 22 Ranger battalions were employed in all four corps. II Corps and IV Corps used them and misused them. I Corps and III Corps used them as palace guards and scouters around the headquarters and the military districts of the corps. In II Corps in Pleiku and down at Can Tho in the Delta, if a division couldn’t take an objective, or if they thought a division couldn’t do it, they would bring in one of more Ranger battalions and throw them in.
The Ranger battalions were very well trained by very good instructors. They had very good, motivated professional people, many of whom had served in the French Foreign Legion. They were highly motivated and did a damn good job. Unlike the rest of the Army, they lived much like our Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) did. Ranger camps, for example, included families, which meant they had to leave some of the soldiers home for protection all the time, usually the elderly or wounded ones recuperating.
One day I was asked to attend a staff meeting with General Westmoreland for the first and only time. At the end of the meeting he pointed to me and he said, “Kingston, you are going to have to improve the image of the Rangers.” In those days they were called chicken thieves and all that. “General Westmoreland,” I said, “that can be done very simply.” He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Feed them the way the rest of the RVN Army is fed. He said, “What are you talking about?” “When higher headquarters directs the battalion commander to take his unit on an operation,” I said, “they tell him how long he is going to be there. They’ll say, ‘You will go in support of such-and-such a division or you will go do such-and-such a mission, and we expect you to be out for 15 days.’ The Ranger battalion commanders receive money for food. They don’t receive rations, like the rest of the military. Each one makes arrangements to feed his battalion for 15 days, but higher headquarters keep them out for 30 or 45 days without additional funds and without transportation to bring food from the base camp out to his battalion. That’s why they’re stealing. They have to live off the land.”
Westmoreland looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “Do you know what you’re talking about?” I said, “I don’t know where you’re getting your information. You made me the senior military adviser. I ought to know after this time how these people are fed. I’m telling you.” Some of his staff started raising hell. They were two-stars, one-stars, and colonels. I’m a lieutenant colonel. I said, “You people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. That’s what you pay me to do. I just told him.” Well, needless to say, they weren’t too happy with me around there for awhile.
I installed a senior Ranger headquarters with each corps group, and staffed it with senior ARVN lieutenant colonels -- ex-battalion commanders. They were, of course, very much in awe of senior commanders, senior staff, and division commanders, but an experienced lieutenant colonel who was their buffer made sure that the mission was correct and the timing was correct. It was his responsibility to get food and other supplies out there and to get the wounded back. In many cases, the wounded of the Ranger battalions were not treated like the wounded in the regular units.
I inspected their training center and was really impressed. Nobody, at least during the small time I was there, was ever assigned unless he had been on operations with one of the battalions, so the instructors knew what the hell they were talking about. In the three months I was there I went on operations with 20 of the 22 battalions. I was gone a lot. I got to know most of them, at least the battalion commanders, and had a hell of a lot of respect for them. Later on, when I was in SOG (Special Operations Group), the launch commanders up at CCN and CCC all were trainers that I had known in the Ranger units.
3d Battalion, 35th Infantry
Three months after I took the Ranger adviser job I got a call from Jack Foss who said, “Can you be in Pleiku on Sunday?” “Hell,” I said, “I have a friend that can get me up there now.” “No,” he said, “what you have to do is get released from the Rangers, because there is a US battalion opening in the 3rd Brigade of the 25th.” The 3rd Brigade of the 25th came from Hawaii, went into Pleiku as the first conventional military force up there, and this was right after Holloway Airfield had been mortared. They wanted some US infantry up there. I said, “Yes, I can.”
I contacted my immediate boss, who was going to be a problem, because I had done a fairly decent job and he was satisfied with me. I say that in all modesty [NOTE: chuckles are permitted at this point]. I knew that if I could get by him and get to Colonel Peatack [Sp?], I’d have it made because Colonel Peatack had been wounded by mortars on the Normandy beachhead on D-Day and was a good infantryman. So I said, “Sir, we have to go see Colonel Peatack right away.” He was in another building. On the way over I said, “Sir, we have to convince Colonel Peatack that I can be released.” He said, “What for?” “Sir, I can get a U.S. battalion up in Pleiku. I have to be there Sunday. You’re too good a soldier to stop me from getting a US battalion, but you know Colonel Peatack.” On the way out, he said, “I think I’ve just been had.” “Sir, thank you very much,” I said.
I got the assignment in Pleiku. The colonel who took the 3rd Brigade from Hawaii to Pleiku did not command the brigade because General Westmoreland said all independent brigades in country had to be commanded by a brigadier general. The ADC, General Glenn Walker, commanded that brigade. He was one of the finest gentlemen and one of the finest soldiers I have ever had the privilege of serving with. He later commanded the 4th Division in the Highlands. He had the mannerisms and some of the looks of Gary Cooper. When you were really in trouble and did something that most people would jump up and down screaming and calling you sons of bitches, Walker would point his finger at you and say, “Now look here, fellow.” That meant you were in deep trouble. His son worked for me in my last assignment, down at MacDill Air Force base, and he visited his son and we spent most of one day together. He has all my personal and professional respect.
I was the first field grade officer to be assigned to that brigade from within country. All others came from Hawaii. They all knew each other. General Walker was temporarily in a forward CP at a tea plantation, so I just hung around headquarters for two days. Every night the colonel he replaced would invite me to dinner with him. A great percentage of the soldiers in this brigade were Hawaiian. Every night they would cook this guy the biggest goddamn luau you ever saw. It was absolutely delicious and more food than I could eat in a week. He kept telling me, “Well, we don’t know if you’re acceptable,” and all that. I almost said, “Shit, I got a pretty good job on the game farm. If you don’t want me, just tell me.” When General Walker came back I reported to him first thing in the morning and he said, “Bob, glad to have you and welcome. You’re going to take over the 1st of the 35th.” I replaced an officer who had been in the advanced class at Fort Benning with me. He had to go home 30 days for some personal reason. While he was gone, the brigade was on Engineer Hill in Pleiku. It was the only US conventional brigade in the Highlands.
My battalion generally was adequately supported as far as food and clothing and ammunition went. We were sometimes short of 4.2” ammo, and we had some restrictions on artillery ammo. I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to that because, if I needed it, I was going to fire it. Then I was going to scream like hell to get resupplied. We did have some problems, of course, with evacuation of the wounded in jungles.
I insisted that each squad have at least one M-14 rifle. I am not an admirer of the M-16, except in very close encounters. When you broke out into some of the open areas of the Highlands, you were outgunned by the enemy because of their rifles -- the SKSs and the AK47s. They were outshooting, distance-wise, our M-16s. Even if there were only four men in a squad, one of them had to carry an M-14. Also, I believe even in sniper fire, even at close range. I wished we had night scopes night vision goggles, but they weren’t issued to my battalion.
Although I was an expert in night operations, I didn’t conduct too many as a battalion commander. You had to thrash around in the brush. We would put out static companies and the bases would put out static listening posts and two-man positions. We did some reconnaissance of villages at night but not moving, company-type operations. The terrain was just too thick. You could really get hurt stumbling around in the wrong area, particularly when we were mining and booby-trapping the trails leading to and from villages. We didn’t get much of that, but we got enough to be cautious.
I might say that the attached tank battalion worked very, very well in the Highlands west of Pleiku. They went out on operations by themselves and would go into a circle, and sometimes they would work them with the battalion. When they did, I was damn glad to have them. I would use them any time I could. It took them a long time to get where we were. Of course we moved more frequently by helicopter than they would. Swing load the artillery. I would say our biggest logistical problem in Vietnam at that time was evacuation of the wounded.
When I took my battalion out of Pleiku for the first time, I kept it out 187 consecutive days -- mostly along the Cambodian border. The first firefight we got in, I landed north of Duc Co, which was directly west of Pleiku. There was a little mountain range there and north of that, in the jungle, two LZ’s (landing zones), 10 ALPHA and 10 BRAVO. We prepped 10 ALPHA with air and artillery from Duc Co, and I landed at 10 BRAVO with a reinforced company. Just before we landed, A-10s -- they’re Air Force planes, prop engines --- which really raked and bombed it.
My company had a good hold, but in the middle of the night got a hard press from the enemy. I loaded the rest of the battalion onto helicopters at Duc Co and just after dawn was about ready to relieve that company. General Walker flew out and said, “What are you doing, Bob?” “I have a company out there,” I said, “and I’m going to reinforce it.” By this time, they had lost half of the LZ. He said, “You going in?” “Yes, sir,” I said.
I went in on the first ship. We landed in the middle of the LZ and the first four aircraft were all knocked down and burned. Mine was hit just after it took off, but everybody got out. No one was seriously wounded. I told door gunners, pilots, and co-pilots on the ground “just to go over there, lie down, and don’t worry about it.” Just after I got on the LZ, two radiomen and I were standing on the western side of the LZ, and in came a flight with napalm. The lead aircraft released the napalm canister early, and we saw it coming toward us. One of the kids jumped in a ditch full of water. The other radio operator ran straight out of the LZ and got behind us. I got down behind a tree and covered my head, and all we heard was a big ‘whish.’ The radio operator who had jumped into the ditch had a piece of napalm hit his metallic watchband, and it completely burned around his wrist. He was the only casualty. Needless to say, I had some conversation with the pilot, who was apologetic. I said, “If you ever do that again, I’ll shoot you out of the goddamn air.” We had some ramifications over that for months later, but it didn’t bother me one goddamn bit.
By the end of the day we had regained the LZ and held. The enemy broke contact. I put patrols out, of course, and kept artillery fire up as much as I could, but it took that night and the next day to find, completely under jungle canopy, a very large NVA training site that included a full stockade with a perimeter of bamboo and two palettes in which stocks kept people’s feet in tow. I think they had two U.S. prisoner groups. On the LZ and along the river, there were just literally hundreds of bodies.
I later discovered that this was the first serious action that battalion had been in. I also later found out that the brigade commander’s idea was to let me have that battalion for a month and then go over and take another battalion. But when the commander I replaced came back from the States, he didn’t want his battalion back.
Let me hit a few later highlights.
I used to keep one company on the battalion fire base. After a while, you get a sense of what is going to happen. I can’t tell you what it is, and I didn’t learn it in the school, but if you look at the enemy long enough and if you look at what he’s been doing, you’ll know. We didn’t have bios of who they were, and we didn’t even know the division commanders. You just get a kind of a feel. . . a nervous feeling. Don’t ask me to explain it. When I felt like that, I would put two companies together. I would always go up with them and bring the exec out of the brigade base to stay at the battalion fire base.
North or northeast of Duc Co is a very large mountain. When I first went there, I remember saying to myself, “Hope Charlie’s on the top of that son of a bitch.” I had a reporter with me who wanted to come, so we joined two companies about five miles away from the base. We started up the west side of the mountain, up and down washes, until we were about three-quarters of the way up on the second afternoon. I said, “OK, time to stop” and got the two company commanders together. “Here’s what we’re going to do.” The two companies took different routes to the top One ran into an enemy regimental into a regimental headquarters for two battalions, one to the southwest, the other to the north. I called for artillery fire. I called for air. I said, “Here is our position.” We marked our positions. “Hit to the west and to the north of us and keep everything you’ve got coming.” Duc Co had 155s and we were using those too. The air started to use its CB. We got the crypto codes, cut the radios. There were a hell of a lot of dead all over the place, but very few casualties to my unit.
That afternoon brigade intelligence folks arrived by air. We landed them and got the wounded and dead out. This reporter said, “Well, I’ve found a story and will go back to the brigade.” “Fine,” I said. A couple of weeks or months later I ran into this guy and asked , “What happened to that story? I didn’t see it.” “I filed it,” he said; “They said it was a good story, and they didn’t print good stories.” That’s what was going on in the press at that time. This guy felt really ashamed.
All 35th Infantry battalions eventually were west of Pleiku. We had to leave some troops behind to guard Mang Yang Pass on Highway 19, but that was a brigade responsibility, not mine. I ended up with 155s, 105s, and the brigade base along a little stream. Needless to say, one hell of a lot of work goes into trying to cut down big mahogany and teak trees. When I first got there, they were moving battalion bases every two or three days. I said, “What’s this for?” “Well, you don’t want the enemy catching you.” “Sure we do,” I said; “That’s what I’m out here for. If they catch me, then I will not have to run after them.” So I didn’t move for a long time.
The only man I ever had missing in the nine months I had that battalion was during a ferocious firefight. The next morning I wanted to talk to one of my platoon leaders and I couldn’t get him on the radio. I sent a runner. That man disappeared. We never found him. We never heard anything about him. He didn’t show up on the list of missing in action, and he didn’t show up in captivity. I know because I set up the Joint Casualty Resolution Center. We had no idea what happened to that individual. I spent a hell of a lot of time with my people scouring the area. Maybe he saw he was wounded and got up and shot himself. We looked at all the dead people, but never did find out what happened to him.
General Westmoreland visited Fire Base Yankee and General Walker was with him. I had all battalion positions, down to half squads, on a map. Westmoreland said, “What do you do here?” General Walker didn’t have anything to reinforce me with, so I said, “Unless you can reinforce me, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry, dies on Fire Base Yankee.” I thought Westmoreland would fall out of his goddamn chair. “What do you mean?” I said, “Are we going to exfiltrate and leave the dead and wounded here? Look at that jungle. You were flying over it. Get down and walk it, General.” Might as well talk to the goddamn wall. He had no idea what I was talking about.
Westmoreland and General Walker evidently discussed my situation later, because they brought a Korean battalion up and put it in north of me, south of Duc Co. I watched those guys build a battalion base, just like a lot of our field manuals. If you compared a picture in a U.S. manual with an aerial photo they would match perfecty, but Koreans wouldn’t patrol while they were building bases. They’d say, “Building base. Got to build the base. Can’t do anything else.” Five US tanks brought through rough terrain defended the front of that battalion base, which the NVA hit one night. Those tanks were equipped with spotlights, which were all shot out, but the Koreans had damn few killed or wounded and they fought like hell out of that base. They decimated at least a reinforced battalion, if not more. Those tanks -- the light and illumination -- really saved the day. Had they hit me like that -- we would have gone under. I didn’t have any built bases like that.
When the 4th Division came into the Highlands the 3rd Brigade of the 25th was attached. Our brigade commander, General Glen Walker, became an ADC of the 4th Division. His replacement was Colonel Jim Shanahan, about 180° different from Walker. Jim Shanahan, who had fought in World War II with the 3rd Battalion, 25th, thought he still commanded that battalion. He had a habit, when he disagreed with you, of calling you such things as “a dumb son of a bitch,” or asking “where did you get that stupid idea?” I told my S-3, Fred DeLyle, “The next time Shanahan says something, I will just say to you, ‘DeLyle,’ and you throw everybody out of the goddamn camp including the OP sergeant. You man the radios.” So, some time later, Shanahan came by and said, “You dumb goddamn idiot,” and I said, “DeLyle.” Everybody left and Shanahan said, “What the hell is going on?” “Colonel,” I said, “ if you want this battalion, you can take it and shove it up your ass, but that is the last time that you speak to me in front of my soldiers or officers in that manner.” He looked at me and said, “Well, goddamn it, Kingston, you know I don’t mean it.” I said, “I know you don’t mean it and you know you don’t mean it. But I have to send these kids out to die, and they don’t know you don’t mean it.” So, about six weeks later, it happened again -- and he apologized to the whole crew. That was the last incident of that type with Shanahan. He just did it to people who let him get away with it.
One night 18 rounds of 155 fell on our position. I yelled “Cease fire! Cease fire, everybody,” because it wasn’t the enemy. I called for a C-47 equipped with a penetrator hook with a canvas bag on the end of it. I put a kid in there who had two compound fractures of his legs. With that non-rigid bag, all the weight went down on him. I could see his distorted face before he passed out (thank God), just screaming. I had eight or ten killed and maybe 20 injured. Jim Shanahan and I found the self-propelled 155 corps artillery outfit. Two SP3s or SP4s were doing the plotting. We said, “Let’s see where you fired around this time.” “We fired here.” “Who did you clear it with?” “Nobody.” “Where was the exec?” “He was in his tent.” “Where was the battery commander?” “He was in his tent.” So we got the officers. Shanahan said, “Is this right?” “Yes, sir, what’s the problem?” I reached for my pistol and Shanahan said, “Don’t do it, Bob.” I said, “You are going to court-martial these two bastards. They are going to jail or I personally am going to hunt them down and kill them both.” They both were court-martialed and both went to prison.
When I came back into the brigade base after keeping the battalion out 187 consecutive days, I got the mission of protecting the Man Yang Pass on Highway 19 between the coast and Pleiku. Shanahan said, “Starting at seven o’clock tomorrow morning, the brigade, minus one battalion, is going over to the east coast.” I said, “That is very nice.” He told me that my battalion would remain guarding the road and the pass into Pleiku. He asked for comments. The other two battalion commanders were just sitting there. I said, “General Shanahan, you are going to fail in your mission.” He said, “What the hell are you talking about?” “You’re leaving your best battalion back guarding a goddamn road,” I said. He looked at me, made some comments, and away he went. I give orders and instructions back at my headquarters but, about two o’clock in the morning, I got a call from the brigade S-3 saying another battalion would relieve me in the morning regarding the road, and I would lead the motor march for the brigade minus to the coast.
I must tell about another incident that upset me a bit. I was up north in the mountains at the mouth of the AO and received orders to move to an area south of the Ia Drang River where enemies were infiltrating. When we got there, Shanahan sent his brigade S-3 to look at the landing zone and the area. It was six inches under water. We had a terrible time. I had to divert my artillery into Duc Co. I complained to the brigade commander and asked that his S-3 join me on that LZ. When his S-3 eventually joined me, I said, “You dumb son of a bitch. If you put a battalion in here, the least you can do is spend the night with us. Luckily, we didn’t get bounced because I just put the people in trees or hammocks or anything we could find. The whole area was inundated, between six inches and several feet of water. Needless to say, he was a little bit displeased. If I had my way, I would have fired him on the spot.
Along the east coast, north of Song Bay, I was again put into an LZ selected by brigade. Shanahan thought I should be there. Three days later, I moved. That was the last time I allowed the brigade to select my LZs. I moved across a small valley into the entrance of Bon Son Valley and the area just north of Quon Loi along the coast. Company A was quite a few miles from the battalion base, but I could support it, just barely, with artillery. The A Company commander explored a bunch of large caves. You could lose several hundred people in them with no problem at all. Entering one of them, he was shot in the face and killed. We had some very unfortunate press, thanks to reporters being allowed at the brigade base without discussing with the battalion what the hell went on, and taking this story from someone in the brigade and publishing it in the Washington Post. White House reactions immediately reached brigade and division level. I just said, “Read the log. Read the reports. Don’t send the reporters up to me. You’re the people who started all this nonsense. You solve it.” That made Shanahan a little upset, because he wanted to drop the shit on me and I wasn’t about to take it. I’m not trying to give the impression I didn’t like Shanahan, because I did, eventually, but took me a long time.
Later I occupied a little hill that had only a one ship LZ. I came out of the CP tent one day and was walking down the hill when I heard a newly-assigned battalion chaplain giving a sermon. What I heard was something like, “If you are not prepared to die, prepare yourselves, because men are dying every day out there.” I hung around until the sermon was over, then called the chaplain aside. I said, “You are supposed to be here to encourage these soldiers. What you are doing is scaring the shit out of them. You will not talk about dying. You will not have a sermon that lasts over four minutes as long as you remain in this battalion.” We had a theological discussion and a command discussion. The command emphasis won out. The next day, the chaplain said to me he could serve the battalion better by going back to brigade base, where I had a wounded first lieutenant in charge. I said, “Well, you can go back as long as you spend every night out here on the battalion fire base.” That didn’t set too well.
About a day after that I was on my way to my command and control helicopter, because one of my companies was in a firefight. I told the chaplain, “Get into the helicopter with me. Men are dying out there, and that’s where you belong.” We had to land on the backside of a hill where battle was hot and heavy. The pilot got into a bomb crater and we jumped out. A four man patrol guided us to the action. The chaplain looked around and said, “I can’t see anything.” Bullets were going all over the place. He finally got up where some of the wounded were. He did a splendid job. I think I unleashed a demon because after that, every firefight we got into, the chaplain would be in my CP saying, “Colonel, I’ve got to go up there. Men are dying up there and that is where we belong.” He turned out to be one hell of a damn fine chaplain and just exactly what we needed.
Similarly, I had a battalion surgeon report to me one day. I said, “Son, how long have you been in the United States Army?” He smiled and looked at me and said, “Sixty days today, sir.” He looked about nineteen years of age and his name was Dr. Cotton. He was practicing medicine, I’m told, out in Cincinnati. Sixty days later, Dr. Cotton had a Purple Heart and Silver Star. That was the caliber of folks that we still have in the United States Army, as far as I’m concerned.
One evening at the brigade CP at Engineer Hill in Pleiku I was in the small officers club and heard a lieutenant colonel I didn’t know and a senior warrant officer I didn’t know in the bar bad-mouthing the brigade commander. I introduced myself to them and told them that it was not their place to discuss the shortcomings of their commander. They apologized, but kept it up. The second time I went over, I said, “Report to me at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.” They said, “Who the fuck are you?” I said, “I am Lieutenant Colonel Kingston and I am on my way home. Go over to the 1st, 35th area at seven o’clock and both of you report to me, or I will come and get you and court martial you for disobeying a lawful order.” At seven o’clock the next morning, I marched them into the brigade commander’s hooch and said, “Tell the brigade commander your discussion last night.” They looked at each other hesitantly and I said, “Let me remind you of my caution last night and what I told you.” With that, I marched out and left them with the brigade commander.
Jim Moore, the brigade S-3, replaced me (he became Lieutenant General James Moore who commanded the combined field army in Korea and the Sixth United States Army at The Presidio). He was a very highly competent soldier like his father, who retired a four star general. He just happened to be Shanahan’s brother-in-law, and took the battalion as a major.
The second day before I was to leave, there was an air assault -- battalion size. Colonel Shanahan thought it would be advisable if I accompanied that battalion commander, which I did. All the time I was thinking, “If I get killed, you son of a bitch, I am never going to forgive you.” To make a long story short, I was scheduled to fly home on a C-141. The command sergeant major of my battalion parked a jeep in front of that aircraft and told the pilot that his flight wasn’t going to leave until I got there. When I arrived a couple of minutes late I found an irate Air Force major and a smiling battalion command sergeant major. When the pilot found out what happened, he seated me in the most comfortable seat.