SGT – U.S. Army
4th Infantry Division, 2nd Brigade LRRP
22 May 1946 – 14 June 1967
Panel 21E, Line 100
Service: Army (Regular)
Grade at loss: E5
MOS: 11B40: Infantryman
ID Number: 55860797
Len Svc: 1 to 2 years
Unit: 4 INF DIV, 2nd Bde LRRP
Start Tour: 07/21/1966
Incident Date: 06/02/1967
Cas Date: 06/14/1967
Age at Loss: 21
Remains: Body recovered
Casualty Type: Hostile, ground casualty, died of wounds
Location: Pleiku Province, South Vietnam. WIA while ambushed during a
ground extraction along Highway QL-19, near the Cambodian
border. Died in hospital 12 days later.
Reason: Struck by RPG
Purple Heart, Bronze Star “V”, Combat Infantryman Badge, Vietnam Campaign
Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with star.
Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Hillside, Illinois. His body was claimed by his
brother, Mr. Clarence Bonert, of 7343 South See Ley Avenue of Chicago,
Links to Remembrances:
RONALD JOSEPH BONERT was born on May 22, 1946 and joined the Armed Forces while in Chicago, IL. He served as a 11B40 in the Army. In 1 year of service, he attained the rank of SGT/E5. He began a tour of duty on July 21, 1966. On June 14, 1967, at the age of 21, Ronald Joseph Bonert perished in the service of our country in South Vietnam, Pleiku. You can find Ron honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 21E, Row 100.
From “Never Forgotten” by Mike Lapolla (4thdivrangers.com) – Ronald Bonert 2ND BDE LRRP 1966-1967 Wounded June 2ND 1967 Died from wounds about 12 days later. This is the best picture we have come up with so far Ron’s face is covered up by Dan Harmon we are still looking for a better picture. SGT Bonert was on his last mission that day he and Harmon were going home as soon as we got in. I was in the Hospital in Pleiku for one day before I was Medivac’ed out of country I got to talk a bit with Ron and I thought that he would be ok, when I got back in country and found that he had died it hit me pretty hard, we were denied extraction that day by an Infantry Battalion Commander and left out there for over 5 hours while the NVA set up all around us, no one should have died that day, Ron was a good team leader and a decent fellow I think.
On a Mission 1967: Dan Harmon (KIA) Team Leader Ron Bonert
Listed below are additional links and information about Ron Bonert.
I See You In My Daughter’s Eyes
A Poem from Ron’s niece, Barbara Badr
I was just an infant when you died
but recall the years of how my parents cried;
Tears of deep, gut wrenching sorrow,
knowing for you, there’ll be no tomorrow.
You had touched my parents’ soul
their’s had touched me
So your soul’s still moving down our family tree-
to my precious daughter, Amy, who now is three
Full of wonder, joy, and love;
an amazing kind spirit
Her childlike innocence holds no disguise
for you my dear Uncle can be seen in her eyes.
Ron Coon -Ron Bonert was wounded June 2nd 1967. He died from wounds about 12 days later. SGT Bonert was on his last mission that day he and Harmon were going home as soon as we got in. I was in the Hospital in Pleiku for one day before I was Medivac’ed out of country I got to talk a bit with Ron and I thought that he would be OK. When I got back in country and found that he had died, it hit me pretty hard. We were denied extraction that day by an Infantry Battalion Comander and left out there for over 5 hours while the NVA set up all around us. No one should have died that day. Ron was a good team leader and a decent fellow. I think of him always.
Mike Lapolla -Ron was one of the first volunteers for our LRRP unit in 1967. He was quiet, confident, reliable, likeable and one good soldier. When he and Dan Harmon were fatally wounded, it upset many of us. Although we accepted difficult missions, we had a record of having not lost a man in seven months. Ron and Dan volunteered for a mission that they did not have to accept – and were lost upon being extracted when their mission was completed. It is that selfless sacrifice that we remember always.
After 36 years, I re-established contact with the Harmon and Bonert families in the Spring of 2003. Barbara Bonert Badr and Joan Bonert are a delightful mother and daughter who have remained loyal to Ron’s memory over all these years. The Harmon family reunited last Summer in Alaska for the first time since they buried Dan 37 years ago. Their gravesite ceremony on June 6, 2003 was special.
Bob Smyers – Ron was one of the “Elite”, who of his own accord did volunteer for one of the most dangerous units to serve with, The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. Why, why did he do this? I am sure he had his reason(s). For sure, one reason was a sense of mission. He felt this to be best way to serve his country and make it a little safer for many soldiers, soldiers that would never know the great contribution he made. Ron had a calling and he answered. He was a young good looking sergeant that was full of life. He made his rank in one year of service. This tells he was a serious person with leadership qualities. These qualities where honed as he preformed many dangerous missions. These missions would lead him deep into enemy held territory, to obtain information that would enable commanders to better plan large operations. He was respected by his fellow soldiers. Ron was on his final mission and had just days before going home and that was exciting to him. But he and his four man team found they were surrounded by a large unit of the North Vietnams Army, and remain unspotted for five hours. The attempt to extract the team with an armor unit would prove to be fatal. They were ambushed two wounded, one dead.
Danny Harmon ( his close friend ) was killed in action trying to get to Ron, that was seriously wounded. These two were really close and like Ron was going home after this mission. The team was finally extracted. He was hospitalized from serious wounds. It was thought he would be okay, however, Ron was so grieved by Danny’s death knowing ,the love Danny had for him.. This was overwhelming and very sad. The grief perhaps is the reason he died twelve days later, seems he just gave up. He was truly loved by the men of the 2nd brigade LRRP, 4th infantry division and each of us was blessed by his presence. Farwell my brother. You may be gone but you will always be in our hearts to the end. Lord, we know your angels were with Ron at the moment You called him home, his heavenly home. Why so young? We have no answer, but trust he is dwelling in paradise with you, just as describe in Your Word.”. We thank you for men and women like our brother, who thought it not too much to give his life for another to live……. Lord, this day give comfort to those loved ones that have been all these years without him. Help them to know he is at rest with you and “Warriors” of like kind. May we never forget our freedoms were bought by the blood of others. We thank you God for allowing those of us that knew Ron, the chance to share part of his life. His foot prints will always remain in our heart. We give thanks, in JESUS NAME.
Life and Death on a Long Range Recon Patrol
BY TOM CORPORA, 9/12/2011
Los Angeles native Tom Corpora joined the Army at age 17 and after his discharge worked for UPI and NBC News for most of his career. He first went to Vietnam in 1966 for UPI and returned for a stint as NBC’s Saigon bureau chief in the 1970s.
With four LRRPs exposed, clinging to the tank’s turret as it backed toward the NVA positions, Pfc Coon shouted, This ain’t good. We got to get off this tank.
When the formation of helicoptersâ€”a command and control chopper, two gunships, and the insertion and chase shipsâ€” neared its destination where Vietnam’s Highway 19 crosses into Cambodia, the insertion and chase ships dropped from the formation and began an elaborate pas de deux of deception. With the gunships covering them, the insertion ship dropped into a clearing and hovered a moment, faking an insertion, while the chase ship roared past. Then the insertion ship rose suddenly and fell in behind the chase ship, which dropped into the next clearing to fake an insertion while the insertion ship flew past. The two helicopters performed this leapfrogging dance four times before the insertion chopper finally dropped its payloadâ€”four heavily camouflaged soldiers from the Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon (LRRP) of the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
One of the four, the radioman, had never been on a long range recon patrol before, and the point man, also new, had never walked point before. The two veterans on the team had started their tour in Vietnam on the same day, July 21, 1966, and both were due to go home in six days.
One of those two veteran LRRPs, Spc. 4 Danny Harmon, had been a point man on a patrol I had been on with the 2nd Brigade just a couple of weeks before. I was a 30-year-old reporter for UPI then, mostly covering U.S. troops in the field. When I learned about the LRRP units that had been or were being formed in all the major infantry units in Vietnam at that time, and the behind the lines missions they were being asked to undertake, they earned my respect and my admiration. I wanted to write about them and the best way to do that was to go on a patrol with them. I talked my way onto a mission by convincing the 2nd Brigade commander, Colonel Judson Miller, that the eight weeks of Army basic training I’d had 13 years before qualified me. Miller did not want me killed on his turf, so he ordered the LRRP commander to handpick my team. Harmon was one of the chosen. We had set up a listening post near where North Vietnam Army (NVA) activity had been reported and soon found ourselves pretty much surrounded by the enemy. We stayed hidden in the jungle, hoping the hot sun of the day would give way in the evening to cloudy skies and then a heavy rain, which would be loud enough to cover the noise we made as we tried to escape.
Harmon was one of the LRRPs who helped me get home safely. That experience not only enhanced my respect and admiration for what LRRP soldiers do, but it added an extra dimension: affection, not only for the four men who shared their lives with me on that patrol and the other young soldiers in the 2nd Brigade I got to know, but also to all the Army Rangers I’ve met over the years.
Danny Harmon was an Alutiiq Indian from a remote island near Kodiak, Alaska. He had grown up fatherless, reared by a mother who struggled to raise him and eight other children. Harmon and his siblings had learned to hunt and fish for the family’s survival, and he was so skilled at bushcraft that 1st Lt. Michael Lapolla, who had organized the 2nd Brigade’s platoon and was its first commander, called him a ghost in the field. He walked around in the jungle like it was his home. He had no nerves.
Harmon smiled a lot, was modest, kind and popular. His dark skin often aroused the curiosity of the Montagnard minorities who lived in the Highlands. He always carried a sharp knife and sometimes wore a feather in his hat. Although he had no special training before joining the platoon, the skills he learned in the woods of Alaska translated well in the jungles of Vietnam. Harmon was the ultimate point manâ€”seeming to sense the enemy before he saw or heard him. The fact that he had been in the unit from its inception and had never been hurt spoke to his skills in the jungle. In fact, no one had been killed on any of Harmon’s patrols, nor, for that matter, on any 2nd Brigade LRRP patrol since the unit was formed the year before. Harmon had already been awarded a Bronze Star with V Device by a general who personally pinned the medal to his chest. The award was for disregarding his own safety to direct artillery fire on enemy soldiers pursuing his team.
An Alutiq Indian born and raised on a remote island, 21-year-old Danny Harmon learned the skills that were so useful in the steamy jungles of Vietnam by tracking and hunting in Alaska’s frigid wilderness. Harmon had less than a week left in Vietnam when on May 31, 1967, Staff Sgt. Wayne Littlejohn of the 2nd Brigade’s Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon got a warning from brigade intelligence saying his unit would be ordered to make a bomb damage assessment (BDA) of a B-52 Arc Light strike in the brigade’s area of operations in the Ia Drang Valley near Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. The warning put Littlejohn in a difficult position. The 4th Infantry Division had been in Vietnam a year, and many of the soldiers who filled its ranks when it arrived had rotated or were about to. Littlejohn’s LRRP was no exception. The four-man teams he still had intact were out on assignments, and the only veteran team leader at Base Camp Oasis that day was Sergeant Ronald Bonert, who was due to go home on June 5, the same day as Harmon. The unit’s standard operating procedure was to not ask short-timers to take on dangerous assignments if it could be avoided. It could not always be avoided. Aside from the short-timer issue, Littlejohn and Bonert had grown close while both were recovering from wounds in Japan. Bonert had been hit in the right leg by small-arms fire during an ambush, sustaining wounds so bad his teammates had thought him dead and abandoned him. Bonert had saved himself by crawling and stumbling after his team, finally catching up to them at a place they had stopped to rest.
Now Bonert was only six days away from leaving Vietnam, and Littlejohn really did not want to send him on a mission. But he had no other choice and he knew Bonert wouldn’t refuse. After all, the LRRPs were all volunteers. If there was anything mitigating about the assignment, though, it was the assurance Littlejohn receivedâ€”and gave to Bonertâ€”that it would be short: Go in, assess the Arc Light zone and get out. True to form, Bonert did not turn Littlejohn down. But now the sergeant faced much the same situation Littlejohn had, and he solved it the same way, by asking Harmon to join the mission. Bonert and Harmon were both 21 years old, both were draftees and both were anxious to get home and out of the Army.
To fill out the patrol, Bonert asked a soldier recently arrived in the unit, Pfc Ron Coon, 20, to walk point. Coon grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis always wanting to be a Ranger, just like his dad, who landed at Anzio in the Allied invasion of Italy, was captured and sat out the rest of the war as a POW. Coon had been in an infantry company in the 4th Infantry Division for two months, when he learned the LRRP platoon was looking for volunteers. Bonert had never worked with Coon, and Coon had never walked point. But the experienced Harmon had been training Coon on point and would stay close to him during the patrol. The fourth team member, radioman James Sommers, had just arrived in the unit. He was so new that no one knew where he was from or how old he was, but he and Coon had attended the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Recondo School, known as the LRRP finishing school that was run by the Special Forces in Nha Trangâ€”where the final exam was a live combat patrol nicknamed, You Bet Your Life.
The next day, June 1, the four men got ready for the mission and at 1300 hours, walked with their gear the 150 meters from the LRRP compound to the brigade helicopter pad and boarded the slick waiting for them. As they ascended, they could see all of Base Camp Oasis, now a small bustling city where something new was always being built. Located 23 miles southwest of Pleiku, about halfway to the Cambodian border, the terrain around the camp was rugged and mountainous with many small rivers and streams. An old tea plantation sprawled nearby, and Montagnard villages dotted the area. Soon after getting airborne, the LRRP team’s chopper rendezvoused with the two gunships, chase ship, and the command and control helicopter, and they headed toward the Arc Light strike zone to make the insertion.
A reporter for UPI, Tom Corpora finagled his way onto a patrol in early 1967 with a 2nd Brigade LRRP team that included Sgt. Ron Speck. When the insertion ship did finally drop into the target zone, it hovered a few moments longer than it had on the false insertions, and the soldiers jumped from its skids about 12 feet to the floor of the clearing. The men lay motionless for a few minutes, then did a kind of ballet of their own to try to deceive any enemy who may have seen them jump from the chopper. The soldiers first moved north into a wood line and continued in that direction for about 100 meters. Then they hooked back, heading south toward the Arc Light zone. Almost immediately they discovered a well-used, well-camouflaged trail with fresh foot tracks and recently dug spider holes. Since monitoring the trail was not the patrol’s mission, Bonert just noted its position and ordered the men to move quickly off it toward their objective.
At about 1700 hours, the soldiers found a large open area with tall brush for cover and good lines of fire for defense and set up their night defensive position. They were about 300 meters north of Highway 19 and 400 meters east of the Cambodian border. The B-52 strike had gone in south of the highway, so their position was near their objective. They would do their bomb damage assessment early the next morning, then likely call for an extraction later in the day. They placed Claymores on each of the four sides of their position, and at dark Bonert posted a guard. One man, 90 minutes. Soon after dark, a distant machine gun sent a burst of green tracers across the night sky and from then on, almost hourly, the gun fired. At another point, the soldiers heard noises coming from the direction of their insertion. Had the NVA found their trail? When the noises stopped as suddenly as they started, the team decided to stay put until morning.
At dawn, the soldiers packed their gear, retrieved their Claymores, sanitized the site and quietly moved southward through the brush toward Highway 19. They reached the road near a large berm of gravel and tree trunks that had been placed across the highway to interdict it about 150 meters east of the Cambodian border. They crossed the road and then moved west toward the border and south again toward the edges of the Arc Light zone. After a few minutes, they found another trail similar to the one they had seen the day beforeâ€”camouflaged, wide enough for vehicle traffic and lined with spider holes. Not long after that, they reached their objective.
B-52 bombers were designed to carry nuclear weapons, but during the Vietnam War they were converted for conventional bombs, and each plane could carry 60,000 pounds of 500- and 750-pound iron bombs. The devastation the bombers left was awesome and awful, a mish-mash of everything all twisted together, as Coon described the Arc Light zone, almost impossible to move through. The BDA seemed pointless, as one crater looked exactly like another. So Bonert took a number of pictures and then ordered Coon to lead the patrol back toward Highway 14.
Bonert’s plan was to go to another point in the damage zone to make more pictures. Moving slowly through the shattered earth, and carefully avoiding the route they had taken going in, the four soldiers walked out of the Arc Light zone. As they did, they found yet another section of the same high-speed trail they had discovered earlier that morningâ€”unscathed by the B-52 bombing. Since the trail was heading in the same direction as they were, they marched parallel with it for a while, searching for a place to cross. When they started across, something caught Coon’s attention, though he didn’t see anything. At that very moment, Coon felt Harmon’s hand on his shoulder, urgently pressing him down into the brush. When they were hidden, Harmon silently pointed out four NVA soldiers set up in an ambush position, luckily facing in the opposite direction, less than 20 meters ahead of them. They had walked up on the back of an enemy ambush.
The patrol backed out slowly and quietly about 150 meters toward Highway 19, where they found a bomb crater and laid down in it, watching, waiting and wondering if they had been seen. After 15 minutes with no pursuit, Bonert decided to get back to the north side of the road. Knowing that their mission was compromised and that they were the target of the ambush, they needed to find an extraction zone and get out. They moved from the crater toward the highway, and when they were within 10 meters they halted to search for a place to cross. Suddenly, as they started to move to the road’s edge, two North Vietnamese soldiers ran out of the brush 15 meters to their left and crossed the highway, heading to a ditch. Before the two dove into the ditch, Harmon tossed a fragmentation grenade after them, and Coon followed. As their grenades arched over the road, they were crossed in mid-flight by two grenades from the other side, neither of which, unlike the American grenades, found their targets and exploded.
The LRRPs, not wanting to hang around to assess the damage, began running east parallel to Highway 19, then crossed to the north side to head for the remains of an old French fort, shown on Bonert’s map to be about a kilometer from the border. It was in a wide, open area with plenty of space to bring in an extraction helicopter. As they moved, Bonert got on the radio to report the ambush site and the exchange of grenades, but held off calling for artillery fire on the enemy positions. When they reached the fort, they found only a heap of rotted timbers and a berm overgrown by jungle. But an old bunker at a corner of the fort provided some cover and fields of fire, and it looked like a suitable place for a routine extractionâ€”if any extraction can be called routine.
Like the 2nd Brigade patrol on a bomb damage assessment mission led by Sgt. Bonert on June 1, 1967, a small LRRP team patrols into an enemy controlled area near the An Loa Valley. While Harmon, Coon and Sommers set up their defensive position, Bonert called for artillery fire on the NVA positions and then radioed the 1st/22nd Infantry’s tactical operations center to report his team’s situation and request extraction. While he was on the radio, the battalion commander interrupted, saying he’d had an infantry company in that area the week before and it had found the area cold â€”no trails, no NVA. The LRRPs felt as if the commander was basically calling us liars, Coon later recalled. We were not pleased. Seriously pissed off would be an understatement. But we had no recourse. We were at their mercy.
Helicopter extraction was standard operating procedure for LRRP units, but this time the battalion said it could spare no choppers and would send tanks and infantry instead. It was about 1000 hours then. As the day wore on, from their bunker the LRRPs saw a squad of NVA soldiers setting up positions about 300 meters west of the fort, near the place the team had bivouacked the night before. Bonert called in artillery fire. A few minutes later, Harmon saw movement along the south side of Highway 19, and Bonert called for more artillery fire. A couple of hours later, around noon, with no tanks in sight, Bonert called the tactical operations center again to ask about the extraction. He was told a tank had thrown a track, and they would get to them when they could. The soldiers were getting anxious. With all the enemy activity around them, it seemed only a matter of time before they would be discovered.
At 1430, three M-48 tanks came lumbering up Highway 19 from the east, with an infantry platoon following in two columns. Bonert ordered his team up on the berm, and when the lead tank arrived, the commander, a first lieutenant who Coon felt looked clearly annoyed at being out there, opened the hatch and shouted: You’re in the middle of a minefield! Although the LRRPs’ maps did not show it and it had not been mentioned in their briefing, the French had apparently placed mines around the fort many years before, and they had never been removed. Ancient mines were of less concern to the patrol than the fact that the tanks had arrived. But Coon, at least, was bothered by the tanker’s tone, recalling later that the tank commander had obviously been told that we were lying about being in contact and acted pissed about having to come out and pick us up. The officer told Bonert to get down from the berm and he would back in and pick them up. Once the men were on the tank, Bonert briefed the officer on where they’d seen enemy activity. Then the tank commander, as if he were trying to prove that his commanding officer was right about the area being cold, ordered his tank, with the four LRRPs exposed, clinging to its turret, back toward the NVA positions.
This ain’t good, Coon shouted to Bonert. We got to get off this tank. This ain’t no fucking good. But the tanks were moving too fast to jump off.
Two hundred meters from the Cambodian border, near where Harmon and Coon had exchanged grenades with the NVA soldiers, the tanks pulled off the road, and the number two and three tanks fired anti-personnel canister rounds into the brush; then, without stopping, pulled back onto the road and rumbled west again. The infantry struggled to keep up. A hundred meters farther west on Highway 19, as the lead tank carrying the LRRP team passed, the NVA detonated a mine, blowing off a track. A second anti-tank mine blew a track off the last tank in the column, effectively trapping the undamaged tank between the two. Almost simultaneously, NVA soldiers firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) opened fire from positions on the north side of the road. Sommers either jumped or was blown off the tank as the attack started and managed to get to the cover of a roadside ditch, suffering a small shrapnel wound.
In a matter of seconds, an RPG struck between Bonert’s legs, leaving him with gaping wounds in both. That round was so close to Coon’s head that the blast perforated his eardrums. He could not hear out of his right ear and could barely hear from his left, which was bleeding. Another round landed near Coon’s feet, ripping off one of his boots and puncturing his body with shrapnel from head to toe. A tiny sliver of shrapnel propped open his right eyelid. Even before the third tank had been disabled, the crew on the middle tank began firing canister rounds into the ambush at pointblank range, and then the machine guns and cannons of all three tanks raked the ambush area with fire. Harmon had been riding behind Bonert and Coon, next to a loudspeaker mounted to the tank for propaganda broadcasts. It apparently shielded him, so he was either unwounded or just slightly wounded in the initial attack. He was able to grab the now unconscious Coon by his web gear, wrench him from the tank and drag him to the safety of the ditch. Then Harmon scrambled back to the tank to rescue Bonert.
Amid the raging fire, Harmon climbed back up on the tank, and as he was pulling Bonert behind the turret for some cover, small-arms fire struck him twice in the chest. The impact hurled him off the tank onto the hard-packed dirt road. Bonert was still on the tank, unable to move, screaming for help. The infantry platoon, which had found cover at the sounds of the first blast, stayed safely out of the fight. Regaining consciousness in the ditch, Coon could hear Bonert pleading for help. Sommers was near Coon in the ditch. When Coon asked Sommers where Harmon was, he pointed to the crumpled body on the road. Coon crawled out to Harmon, and found that he was dead. As he crawled back toward the ditch, the grievously wounded and exposed Bonert cried frantically for help.
Finally, when no more fire seemed to be coming from the ambush site, the tanks stopped shooting and the infantry moved up. Some troops helped Bonert off the tank and administered medical aid to him before the medevacs could get there. Other troops swept the area and found eight dead NVA. Besides the LRRPs, the only other casualty was the lieutenant commanding the lead tank, who had been hit when the firefight started, losing his right arm at the shoulder. He and Bonert, along with Harmon’s body, went out on the first medevac. Coon and Sommers followed on the second, taken to the 18th Surgical Hospital at Pleiku.
Coon felt terrible because he did not help Bonert. He was in a lot of painâ€¦screaming for someone to help him, he said. I’ve rationalized it a million times. The NVA were using him for bait. But it would have ended the same if I could have gotten him or not. I talked to Bonertâ€¦about all of this. He understood. He said I did right. But in the end, I didn’t get him off that tank.
Twelve days after he had been wounded, Bonert died at the 67th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon. He should have been home in Chicago by then. Sommers was treated in Pleiku and then apparently returned to his home unit. They were volunteers. They could quit anytime they wanted. Danny Harmon’s death also weighed heavily on Coon. Danny saved my life. I’ve no way to thank him, Coon wrote later. He was my friend and I don’t know how to repay him.
After being transferred from one hospital to another, Coon’s physical wounds healed and he returned to the LRRP platoon, but his mental and emotional wounds haunted him. He continued doing recon missions, but began feeling that I wouldn’t come back from the next mission. As the end of his tour neared, Coon was assigned to a mission with two new men. Nothing much happened, but the similarity between that patrol and the one that had cost Bonert and Harmon their lives was too much for him. I quit, he said. I had had enough.
* * *
Another detailed account of this mission is found in “Phantom Warriors: LRRPs, LRPs, and Rangers in Vietnam” by Gary Linderer.
* * *
Fellow Veteran’s Honor Dan Harmon
by Mike Rostad, Special to the Kodiak Mirror, June 6, 2003
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” [John 15:13].
Woody Island Native Dan Harmon laid down his life for his friends and country 36 years ago in a fiery confrontation with ambushing Viet Cong on the Cambodian border. Ironically, Harmon had only one week [to serve in Vietnam] before his discharge.
Danny and fellow soldiers – SP4 Ron Coon, SP4 Jim Sommers and SGT Ron Bonert – of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, a detachment of the 4th Infantry Division, were being evacuated by tanks from a danger zone when enemy fire disabled two of the vehicles and wounded Coon and Bonert.
|“For most people, Memorial Day comes once a year. For me, it’s every day.” – Ron Coon|
Harmon pulled Coon off the tank and dragged him to a ditch where the injured man passed out. As if oblivious to the danger around him, Harmon climbed on top of the tank and tried to get Bonert over the edge. Suddenly he was struck at close range through the heart with two AK-47 rounds. He was knocked off the tank and died. Twelve days later Bonert, a native of Chicago, succumbed in a [military] hospital.
Dan Harmon was buried with high military honors on Woody Island in a spot he loved and longed to return to. Today, the heroic Vietnam veteran will be commemorated in a way that would have brought a bright smile to his often quiet face. His friends and family members – including nieces and nephews who weren’t even born in 1967 – will gather around his grave as one, united in their love and admiration for this brave man whose heroism and sacrifice have never been forgotten.
The memorial service by Father Benjamin Peterson, Dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, is one of the highlights of a four-day retreat sponsored by the Woody Island Tribal Council.
Ron Coon and fellow LRRP teammates Jim Umberger and Bob Crawford came to Kodiak for the special occasion, along with Mike Lapolla, the lieutenant who put the LRRP teams together.
These veterans saw a lot of death and squalor in Vietnam, but their exposure to the harsh, at times unbearable realities of war, has not hardened their hearts. The mere mention of Danny’s name brings tears to their eyes.
“He was like a brother to me,” says Umberger – any further comments temporarily blocked off by a surge of emotion.
Coon doesn’t say much at first but when he tells you what Danny’s sacrifice means to him, you know that what he’s finally able to blurt out is not conversation filler, but words from the heart that is still grieving the loss of close comrades, and the loss of precious blessings denied them because of their sacrifices.
“Danny gave me his tomorrows,” Ron said, and no matter how gloomy those tomorrows can get, Ron’s final assessment is that “life is good.”
Before they left Kodak for Woody Island, the men of the LRRP reminisced about Danny and their time in Vietnam. For Umbrella and Coon, who knew Dan on a personal level, sharing memories about Harmon didn’t come easy.
Lapolla didn’t know Harmon like those two, but he knew enough about him to realize that he was one you could count on to function in an outfit like the LRRP Their work took them deep inside enemy territory bomb damage assessments [BDAs], searches for enemy positions, and other dangerous work. Often the men went on four-day missions in teams of four. Many in the Army called them crazy and wouldn’t want their work for all the gold in the world.
When Lapolla put together his LRRP teams, he had no manual that told him how to select and organize the right people for the job.
“You had to figure it out for yourself. When you are in that kind of circumstance, it makes all the difference in the world who you recruit. You have to find people you can trust. You can trust a lot of people most of the time. But there’s not many you can trust ALL of the time, no matter what. And that’s the kind of people you’re looking for.
“When you are a lieutenant running an operation, you’ve got two kinds of troopers; the guys you can count on ALL the time, and the others.” Danny was one you could count on every situation, Lapolla said.
There’s a lot of people who go through life and you can’t say that about them. If you are 21 and were killed [in the service of others] and that’ your legacy, it’s a good one to have.
“Danny Harmon volunteered for the Army in 1966. After that he volunteered for this unit [LRRP]. And he volunteered for his last mission.” Harmon didn’t have to volunteer for any of those things, Lapolla said.
“If I was there [when he volunteered to go on his last mission], he wouldn’t have gone. Neither him or Ron [Bonert] would have been on that mission. You don’t have to send guys with one week to go.”
Harmon’s “chomping at the bit” zeal to get into the action does not come as a surprise to those who were close to him. He was driven by a desire to serve. Long before he ended up in the ambush that took his life, Dan went AWOL in Washington State – not because he wanted to get out of the Army or because he was afraid of potential danger. He was upset that the Army wasn’t going to send him to Vietnam.
Dan finally got his wish and boarded the Nelson M. Walker, a troop ship. The carrier left the Port of Tacoma and 17 days later the men got off in Qui Nhon, Vietnam.
Umberger was on that boat.
“They put us over the side in WWII style … onto the beach,” Umberger recalls. “They put us on two and a half ton trucks and brought us to the airfield and loaded us into aircraft. They put us in like cattle. You couldn’t sit down. They took us to Pleiku in the Central Highlands.”
That was the beginning. Eventfully he got to know the guy from Woody Island pretty well, even tough Danny was pretty quiet. Where I really got to know Danny was out on missions in the jungle. You get pretty close when it’s just four of you.”
Jim still remembers that ever present smile of Danny’s. “He had a way of smiling at you. He told us he was from Kodiak Island, and talked about how he wanted to come back here to live here., settle down and fish. He told me I could come and see him.”
Danny and Jim were some of the first to volunteer when the LRRP teams were organized. “We were the ones that learned together, what to do, how to survive. Danny was one of the best I’ve ever known in the woods. He didn’t miss nothing. If it was there, Danny found it.”
Dan’s wilderness savvy didn’t go unnoticed by Lapolla or Coon either.
Coon had been on several missions with Harmon, but on the final one near the Cambodian border, he got to know the man better, and appreciate his ability to se what was hidden. Harmon was training Coon to be a point man, which Umberger describes as “the man up front that everyone else is following. If the point man messes up, he’s the first to die.”
Coon was just coming up the trail and was considering crossing when he suddenly froze.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said, “I just couldn’t see anything, but just froze and signaled the others to stop. Danny came up and put his hand on my shoulder. He pushed me down, and as I went to the ground I could see under the brush … these guys set up along this trail to ambush us. But their backs were toward us. They didn’t even know we were there.”
Coon came to Vietnam about a year after Harmon, so he had a lot of catching up to do. Danny helped him.
“He’s was the one to greet you. He’s the one who took you over to the side and started talking about what to do, what not to do, how to act out there. He was interested in the new guys.”
One day as the two were sitting on sandbags and Danny was throwing his knife at a target, he told Ron how to handle himself in enemy territory. “You never look the enemy in the eye, don’t look at his face, but watch his hands,” he told the newcomer.
“Danny said his hands will tell you what they see and what they are going to do. If you look them in the face, they’ll turn and look at you. I remember him sitting on the sand bags and telling me that.”
Coon and Umberger went on many missions as LRRP members, and those missions run together like crayons in the sun. Coon said, “In my memory I was on one long mission.”
But the last one he went on with Dan Harmon was painfully unique. It’s tough for Coon to talk about it. The skirmish has been recounted in many articles and books including “Phantom Warriors” by Gary Linderer.
The four-man LRRP team had been dropped off by helicopter in the middle of nowhere for a BDA. Coming upon a trail, they noticed fresh foot tracks from the enemy and had to constantly watch their backs. After spending a restless night at a campsite, they continued on their way. They ran into more evidence of impending ambush, like the one Coon mentioned earlier, and finally took shelter in the remnant of an old French outpost. They called for a helicopter to pick them up, but no helo was available.
Sergeant Bonert called for a fire mission and soon got a 155mm battery to fire a few rounds in the vicinity.
Much to their relief, the four men were informed that the battalion commander had just authorized three tanks and an infantry platoon to pick them up. While they waited, they saw the enemy troops moving closer.
In early afternoon, the tanks came barreling down the main road, called Highway 19, with the infantry far behind. One of the tanks picked up the four men and as the convoy tried to leave the area of danger, they ran into heavy attacks.
The Viet Cong exploded a command-detonated mine under the track of the lead tank which carried the four LRRPs. The tread wad blown off, and the same fate awaited another tank that hit a mine. The center tank was caught between the two disabled ones.
“RPG rounds whooshed out of cover along the road and hit the lead tank on the turret,” wrote Linderer about the attack. One of the rounds exploded at Coon’s feet, blowing off a combat boot and peppering him with shrapnel.
He heard Bonert screaming for help from the tank. When he asked where Harmon was, Sommers pointed to his body on the road, explaining how Harmon had fallen while attempting to rescue Bonert. Coon was devastated.
Coon tried to help Bonert, but he kept blacking out. The North Vietnamese left Bonert alone, possibly using him as bait to entice Americans to go to his aid and become open targets. The only person who came to assist the tankers and LRRPs, writes Linderer, was a South Vietnamese interpreter by the name of Tam.
At about 4:00 pm, a cease fire was called. Bonert, a wounded tanker lieutenant and Harmon’s body went out on the first medivac and Coon and Sommers caught a lift on the second helo.
Coon was treated at hospitals in Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Subic Bay (Philippines) and Okinawa. He returned to his platoon in July.
No matter how hard they tried, the men of the LRRP could not forget the ugly battles of Vietnam. Neither could they forget their dear friends, Dan Harmon and Ron Bonert.
Through the years the members of the LRRP and Harmon’s family started making contact with each other. How everyone was brought together is a story for at least another article. What need to be said on this special day of Dan Harmon’s commemoration, and what most likely will be shared at his gravesite, is that Dan Harmon was a hero, an each year that he lives on this planet, Coon realizes, on a deeper level. what that heroism encompasses.
“They throw the word ‘hero’ around a lot.” Coon said. “I’ve even been called a hero. I’ve know heroes. That’s good enough for me. If there’s such a thing as a hero, Danny is the one.”
“As the years roll by, I understand more and more of what he gave up on that day in June in 1967. It wasn’t so biting in 1970. It was there, I thought about it [with the attitude of] ‘Okay, that’s just how it is. We’re expected to do that for each other.’ But as I’ve gotten older an held my own babies, graduated them from high school, helped them get through college, watched my boy go through Desert Storm, the older I got, the more I realized what Danny gave up that day. I’ve had all this stuff, Danny got none of it. I stand in awe of what that man did that day.”
Coon can barely get the words out, but they come, each syllable filled with gratitude and charged with emotion.
“I pay my debts, I take care of my people. I do what I am supposed to do. When someone does me a favor, I try to do them a favor back. With Danny, there’s no way for me to pay him back. How can you pay back something like that? When I hold my four-year-old grandson in my arms, how do I tell Dan ‘thank you,’ knowing Danny will never get to hold his four-year-old grandson?
“I’ve watched people drink themselves to death, I’ve watched people drug themselves to death, do all kinds of stupid stuff. And I probably could have done the same thing. The one thing that kept me on the straight an narrow was that I would never do anything to dishonor what Danny did for me that day.
“For most people, Memorial Day comes once a year. For me, it’s every day.”
* * *
Tribute to a brother Ranger
2/13/04 – by Bob Smyers – email@example.com
Ron was one of the “Elite”, who of his own accord did volunteer for one of the most dangerous units to serve with, The Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. Why, why did he do this? I am sure he had his reason(s). For sure, one reason was a sense of mission. He felt this to be best way to serve his country and make it a little safer for many soldiers, soldiers that would never know the great contribution he made. Ron had a calling and he answered. He was a young good looking sergeant that was full of life. He made his rank in one year of service. This tells he was a serious person with leadership qualities. These qualities where honed as he preformed many dangerous missions. These missions would lead him deep into enemy held territory, to obtain information that would enable commanders to better plan large operations. He was respected by his fellow soldiers.
Ron was on his final mission and had just days before going home and that was exciting to him. But he and his four man team found they were surrounded by a large unit of the North Vietnams Army, and remain unspotted for five hours. The attempt to extract the team with an armor unit would prove to be fatal. They were ambushed two wounded, one dead. Danny Harmon ( his close friend ) was killed in action trying to get to Ron, that was seriously wounded. These two were really close and like Ron was going home after this mission. The team was finally extracted. He was hospitalized from serious wounds. It was thought he would be okay, however, Ron was so grieved by Danny’s death knowing ,the love Danny had for him.. This was overwhelming and very sad. The grief perhaps is the reason he died twelve days later, seems he just gave up.
He was truly loved by the men of the 2nd brigade LRRP, 4th infantry division and each of us was blessed by his presence.
Farwell my brother. You may be gone but you will always be in our hearts to the end.
Lord, we know your angels were with Ron at the moment You called him home, his heavenly home. Why so young? We have no answer, but trust he is dwelling in paradise with you, just as describe in Your Word.”. We thank you for men and women like our brother, who thought it not too much to give his life for another to live……. Lord, this day give comfort to those loved ones that have been all these years without him. Help them to know he is at rest with you and “Warriors” of like kind. May we never forget our freedoms were bought by the blood of others. We thank you God for allowing those of us that knew Ron, the chance to share part of his life. His foot prints will always remain in our heart.
We give thanks, in JESUS NAME. Amen.
* * *
His Lieutenant writes, 7/27/00-
I was the LRRP platoon leader for Ron and Dan Harmon. They were a package. Ron from Chicago . Danny from Alaska. Ron was a city kid and Danny an Alaskan native American. From the formation of our LRRP unit (Nov 66) until they were KIA … our unit had never lost a man. I had left the unit before they were KIA … and when I heard the news I cried. Ron lived for 12 days after being wounded. I wrote to his relatives in Chicago .. but lost touch. I would hope they could re-contact me. I gave several formal speeches upon returning home. In each of them, Ron and Danny were at the heart of the theme.