A Team Effort
Special Forces in Vietnam, June–December 1964
“Vietnam” is actually spelled as two words in the Vietnamese language, i.e., “Viet Nam” (pronounced “vee-it” and “nom,” rhymes with “Tom”).
The typical image of Special Forces in the Vietnam War is one of a huge 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) (5th SFG) running specialized covert operations country-wide and cross border operations into Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. That did not happen until post-1965 when the 5th SFG took over operations in Vietnam. The Special Forces commitment to Vietnam had a more humble start centered around twelve-man “A” teams. It began in 1957 with a ten-man SF detachment sent to train Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers in Ranger tactics and techniques. Special Forces A teams rotated in and out of Vietnam on mission-specific mobile training teams until 1960. Then A teams from the 1st and 7th SFGs rotated as units for six-month temporary duty (TDY) tours to “train, advise, and lead Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) Montagnard (sometimes Nung, Cambodian, and Vietnamese) irregular soldiers against the Viet Cong in the Central highlands of South Vietnam.” This article centers on the experiences of Team A-312, 1st SFG in 1964, and will explain the early role of SF in the CIDG program in Vietnam prior to the arrival of the 5th SFG.
1 Most readers are more familiar with the current operational detachment alpha (ODA), however from the late 1950s until the late 1970s, the term usually used by the Special Forces soldiers to describe the basic element was “A Teams;” Brigadier General James Lawton Collins Jr., Vietnam Studies, The Development and Training of the South Vietnamese Army 1950–1972 (Washington DC: Center for Military History, 1991), 38; By the beginning of 1965, the U.S. Army Special Forces Group Vietnam (Provisional) had a strength of less than 1,300 assigned and attached, to a high of 3,725 by 1968 assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group, Colonel Francis J. Kelly, U.S. Army Special Forces, 1961–1971 (Washington DC: Center for Military History, 1989), 5.
The early Special Forces presence in Vietnam was primarily “A-Teams” (today’s operational detachment alpha or ODA) that rotated in for six-month tours to train the CIDG forces throughout Vietnam. Teams from the 7th SFG at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 1st SFG on Okinawa, Japan, deployed to meet the requirement. After 1964, Special Forces soldiers rotated in and out of Vietnam on one-year tours as individual replacements to SF teams throughout the country rather than deploying as a unit.
2 Earl Bleacher, interview by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Jones Jr., 18 November 2005, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Lowell W. Stevens Sr., interview by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Jones Jr., 27 October 2005, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
One of the early teams supporting the Vietnam mission was Team A-312 from C Company, 1st SFG on Okinawa. The team, commanded by Captain Vernon Gillespie, was a mix of veterans and two newcomers. Ten members of Gillespie’s team (including himself) had already been to Vietnam and had had multiple deployments throughout Asia. For the two newcomers, this was their first of several combat tours in Vietnam. Specialist Fourth Class Earl Bleacher and Sergeant Lowell Stevens had both just completed the Special Forces Qualification Course (commonly called the Q-course).
3 Stevens interview, 13 October 2005; Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005.
Specialist Fourth Class (SP4) Earl Bleacher was new to Special Forces but not to the Army. Bleacher had enlisted in the Army in 1950, and served nine years in the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, reaching the rank of staff sergeant. Seeking another challenge, he left the Army in 1959 to attend Millersville State Teachers’ College. Missing the Army, Bleacher reenlisted in 1962 for an airborne assignment. He was sent through basic infantry training again before reporting to the 504th Airborne Battle Group, 82nd Airborne Division as a private E-2. Starting over again, the senior parachutist and non-commissioned officer academy graduate wanted more than the daily grind in the 82nd Airborne Division. After some resistance from his chain of command, “I hand carried my request for Special Forces through the bureaucracy. I knew a few shortcuts,” said Bleacher. He was soon headed down Ardennes Street to Smoke Bomb Hill and the Special Forces Qualification Course. Bleacher trained as a weapons sergeant and graduated from the “Q-course” in May 1963 with an assignment to the 1st SFG in Okinawa. Several other new graduates (including Lowell Stevens) joined him in Okinawa.
4 Today Millersville State Teachers College is Millersville University and is located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005.
5 Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005.
West Virginian Lowell Wesley Stevens began his Army career when he enlisted in 1959. After basic infantry training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he was assigned as a mortar man (today’s MOS 11C) in C Company, 502nd Airborne Battle Group, 101st Airborne Division. In the late 1950s through the early 1960s, many soldiers assigned to the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions attended airborne training at their respective posts (Forts Bragg or Campbell). After completing jump school, the soldiers usually stayed in their units for their entire enlistment. In three and a half years, Stevens worked his way up from a private E-2 M-274 “Mule” driver to mortar section sergeant, a staff sergeant position.
6 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005; The M274 Mule was a small 4x4 wheeled vehicle with a 4-cylinder 14 horsepower gasoline engine that was meant to carry mortars, 106mm recoilless rifles, and other equipment for light infantry and airborne units.
Anticipating a promotion to staff sergeant because he had been filling that position for almost a year, Sergeant Stevens asked the personnel clerk about his promotion chances. He was shocked when the clerk said “Never. A staff sergeant on the division pistol team officially held the mortar section leader position.” “The only way to get promoted was for someone to retire, get busted, or die,” said Stevens. Having just reenlisted for six years, Stevens had to find another way to make rank.
7 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
So mad “he couldn’t see straight,” SGT Stevens went back to his company. As he stormed down the hallway, his company commander, Captain David Ranger [his real name], stopped him. CPT Ranger said, “What’s the matter?” As Stevens proceeded to explain, Ranger ushered him into his office and shut the door. For a few seconds, Stevens thought that he was in big trouble. It was rare that a sergeant entered the company commander’s office except for punishment. Based on Steven’s experience, training, and personality, CPT Ranger thought that he would do well in Special Forces and suggested that he try out. It just so happened that an SF recruiting team was at Fort Campbell. CPT Ranger told Stevens that if he qualified, he would endorse his transfer to attend Special Forces training, even if it meant getting “heat” from the battle group and division. Many in the chain of command highly discouraged soldiers from applying for Special Forces, whether based on the needs of the unit, or simply because they disliked specialty units. That day, Stevens took a battery of tests for Special Forces. “The prospect of slow promotions turned me towards Special Forces, even though in 1963, Special Forces were the two most hated words in the Regular Army,” said Stevens. That started his eighteen-year adventure.
8 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
9 Stevens interview, 13 October 2005.
When SGT Stevens and SP4 Bleacher attended the Special Forces Qualification Course in 1963, there were three phases—Methods of Instruction, military occupational specialty (MOS) training, and “Branch” training. The first phase, “Methods of Instruction” (MOI) trained the soldier to be an instructor, the primary role of Special Forces. Students had to organize, develop, and present three classes, complete with training aids. The topics ranged from basic rifle marksmanship to field hygiene. “As the final test, you had to prepare three subjects [classes]. Then, the cadre member would pick the class you taught for a grade. If you didn’t get through MOI, then you were gone, back to your unit,” said Bleacher.
10 Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005; Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
The second phase was devoted to the soldier’s specialty (MOS). In the 1960s, Special Forces soldiers were trained in five specialties: weapons, engineer (demolitions), communications, medical, and operations and intelligence (O&I). Weapons men (today’s 18B, Special Forces weapons sergeant) were split into heavy and light specialties as a primary MOS and then cross-trained. Today’s 18C, Special Forces engineer, was called a “demo man” in the 1960s, but trained to build as well as to blow up things. The “commo men” (18E, Special Forces communications sergeants), trained initially at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, or Fort Gordon, Georgia, on conventional Army radios before being schooled on SF-specific communications equipment at Fort Bragg. The medics (18D, Special Forces medical sergeant) received the majority of their thirty-eight weeks of training at Brooke Army Hospital at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, additional advanced training at the Special Warfare Center, and some with their unit surgeons. The final specialty was operations and intelligence (O&I), today’s 18F Special Forces operations and intelligence sergeant, taught at Fort Bragg.
11 Charles M. Simpson III, Inside the Green Berets, The First Thirty Years (Navato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983), xiii.
12 Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005; Stevens interview, 27 October 2005; Ronald Wingo, e-mail to Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Jones Jr., 27 November 2005, USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Ian D.W. Sutherland, Special Forces of the United States Army 1952–1982 (San Jose, CA: R. James Bender Publishing, 1990), 142–44.
The last phase of training, called “Branch,” was centered on unconventional warfare (UW) training. It not only stressed UW, but direct action missions such as raids, ambushes, and reconnaissance. Branch phase culminated in a final field training exercise. For Stevens’ class it was called Cherokee Trail I—the predecessor of the current Robin Sage Exercise. While it supposedly was centered on UW, it seemed to Stevens to stress more direct action missions, not unconventional warfare.
13 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
Throughout the Special Forces “Q” course, the one thing that struck Lowell Stevens as odd, was that some instructors would say, “Pay Attention, you might find yourself down south and may need this,” if something was particularly important. In 1963, Vietnam was not mentioned in training, though many instructors had been there. When one of the instructors slipped and said Vietnam, “I went to the post library to look up Vietnam in an Atlas. I couldn’t find it, because the Atlas was so old that it listed the region as French Indo China,” said Stevens. Little did he know then, that Vietnam would become a household word in the United States in less than five years.
14 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
15 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
SGT Stevens and SP4 Bleacher arrived in Okinawa just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963. The two were assigned to C Company, 1st SFG, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Elmer Monger. As he entered the company headquarters, SGT Stevens saw eleven memorial plaques on the wall. Each plaque had a green beret and the name of a 1st SFG soldier and the date he was killed in Vietnam. These were some of the first U.S. casualties in Southeast Asia. “That was really an ‘attention getter,’ because at Fort Bragg the word Vietnam was rarely, if ever, spoken and no reference was made to combat there,” said Stevens. However, this would soon change for Bleacher and Stevens.
16 Colonel Monger was a two time Combat Infantryman’s Badge recipient and later became the commander of the 3rd SFG until it was inactivated on 1 December 1969 at Fort Bragg; Stevens interview 27 October 2005.
In an overseas SF group, the company sergeant majors had enormous power. With their assignment to C Company, Stevens and Bleacher entered the domain of Sergeant Major Robert DePuy. DePuy wore a 101st Airborne Division combat patch, a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), and two gold stars on his master parachutist wings signifying World War II combat jumps (D-Day and Operation MARKET GARDEN). SGM DePuy had one priority—taking care of soldiers so they could accomplish the mission. “But, it was abundantly clear that if you got on his bad side you had a major problem,” remembered Stevens.
17 Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005; Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
A sergeant major in the early 1960s had the power to change MOSs to fill vacancies in the unit as well as to support promotions. Though Specialist Bleacher was a light weapons man, SGM DePuy discovered that he was married. His wife and children were still in Fayetteville, because to bring a family overseas a soldier had to be at least a sergeant. DePuy put him into a demolitions position with a proficiency pay (“pro” pay equaled $55 a month). An E-4 in 1963 received about $150 a month, plus $55 for jump pay. “The ‘pro’ pay was not a gift, I had to earn it,” remembered Bleacher, “I had just a short time to train and pass a test to qualify as a Special Forces engineer.” In short, a sergeant major’s word was law in a unit, but especially so overseas. Since the sergeant major also made all enlisted assignments in the company, Stevens and Bleacher were assigned to Team A-312.
18 Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005.
19 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
In the spring of 1964, several teams received TDY orders for Vietnam. It was 1st SFG’s turn in the Vietnam rotation. Team A-312 would replace a 7th SFG team for six months at the Plei Do Lim (Pley-do-lim) CIDG camp southeast of Pleiku. It had been established by Captain Herbert Hardy’s A-334 in December 1963. Hardy was killed there on 4 March 1964. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for leading a three-man counterattack when the Viet Cong ambushed his company three weeks earlier (19 February 1964).
20 Vernon W. Gillespie Jr. and Shirley Gillespie, interview by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Jones Jr., 23 February 2006, Locust Grove, Virginia, digital recording, USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Shelby L. Stanton, Green Berets at War: US Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia 1956–1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985), 78.
In the 1st SFG, officers were assigned to specific A teams for deployments [missions] only. Team sergeants throughout the Group vied for candidates to fill their elements, especially when scheduled to deploy. They wanted the best soldiers available. The team sergeants built their teams with the advice of the company sergeant major. The senior team NCOs and the company sergeant major selected the team leader and got the approval of the company commander. Once the team leader was selected, he and the NCOs would select an executive officer from the available first lieutenants in the Group.
21 Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006.
SGM DePuy and the NCOs of A-312 selected Captain Vernon W. Gillespie Jr., an Oklahoma native and Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS) graduate who was one of the more experienced captains in 1st SFG. As an infantry officer, he had served at Fort Benning, Georgia; at Fort Meyer, Virginia; and in Iceland. Gillespie later was awarded a Regular Army commission in the Field Artillery. Since Regular Army commissions were extremely competitive and hard to obtain, Gillespie accepted the branch transfer and was assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, “the Home of the Artillery.” A secondary benefit was that it was close to both his and his wife Shirley’s families.
22 Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006.
As a student of military history, Gillespie’s interest in irregular warfare drew him to Special Forces. In 1960, he attended a guerilla warfare course at Fort Benning. After completing the Field Artillery officers career course in October 1962, Gillespie volunteered for Special Forces. In 1962, SF was critically short officers because of its expansion. Gillespie attended a two-month long counter guerilla operations course at the Special Warfare Center. The combination of his two guerilla warfare courses was sufficient to waive the “Q” course requirement because of the shortage of team leaders. After two months of French language training, “I was able to finagle an assignment to 1st SFG, because I wanted to take an A Team to Vietnam.”
23 Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006.
CPT Vernon Gillespie arrived on Okinawa in December 1962, and was immediately assigned to command Team A-124. Foreshadowing the next few years in SF, Shirley Gillespie with their two young sons, Richard, age six, and Stewart, age three, arrived on Okinawa a few weeks later, just days before Vernon deployed to Vietnam. In February 1963, Gillespie’s Team A-124 deployed to Khe Sanh (kay saw). They transformed a Montagnard Bru tribe into a CIDG unit and used it to track North Vietnamese Army units that were infiltrating into Vietnam from Laos. The Bru lived near the border of North Vietnam in the I Corps sector. He also had another deployment in Asia and some staff time at the Group headquarters. After being selected to command A-312, Gillespie and his NCOs had four months to prepare for their six-month TDY in Vietnam.
24 Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006.
One of the first things that CPT Gillespie did was to articulate his “Rules for Deployment.” First, the primary mission of the team was to gain the trust and respect of the Montagnards. Second, disrespectful treatment of a Montagnard was grounds for return to Okinawa for courts-martial. Finally, sexual relations with a Montagnard woman was grounds for return to Okinawa for courts-martial. Since ten of the team members had previously served in Vietnam, a few with several deployments under their belts, Gillespie’s rules were accepted and perfectly understood.
25 Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006; Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005; Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
Team A-312’s soldiers underwent extensive preparations before their deployment to Vietnam. Initial mission preparation included an extensive area study of Vietnam, with a special emphasis on the Central Highlands in the II Corps area. They received French classes three hours each day when not in the field. Heavy weapons training was done at Camp Hardy in the northern training area of Okinawa. Team members cross-trained in various specialties and attended medical and communications classes conducted by the 1st SFG staff. SGT Stevens attended a three-week medical class. When he arrived, it turned out to be a specialty class for medics. “I learned more about childbirth than I really cared to know, although the knowledge would later be helpful with the Montagnards,” said Stevens. While Special Forces deployment training today is similar—cross-training in weapons, medical, and communications—one aspect was unique to 1st SFG.
26 Stanton, Green Berets at War, 78; Gillespie interview, 23 February 2006; Bleacher interview, 18 November 2005; Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
27 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.
28 Stevens interview, 27 October 2005.