PFC KENNETH JAMES SMOLAREK
PFC ROBERT JOHN SILVA
Killed in action 11/27/1969, Thanksgiving Day – 50 years ago!
Both of these young warriors voluntarily enlisted after high school, graduated Advanced Infantry Training, then went to Ft. Benning where they joined the elite Paratroopers after successfully completing jump school. They took different paths, but soon found their way to the big, bad, Central Highlands of Kontum Province in Vietnam. Upon their arrival in Vietnam they were assigned to an Infantry Company in 4th Infantry Division. When other paratroopers invited them to join the LRRPs, they jumped at the chance to excel, once again, and became proud patrolling members of K. Co., 75th Inf. (Ranger). It was the choice not many made but none who did ever regreted. Their first days in the unit were filled with anticipation and a bit of intimidation. New members always wondered if they would be able to uphold the legacy of the many legendary Rangers they were now surrounded by and part of. To be a member of a 4-man Ranger team alone in the home jungle of your enemy was the very definition of dangerous. To be a newly assigned and an inexperienced Ranger exacerbated the danger as was borne out on Thanksgiving Day 1969.
This first mission was to be a way to ease these two new Rangers into combat mode. No one could foresee the danger lurking knowing the circumstances under which this mission was to be conducted. It was Thanksgiving Day and the parties in Paris Peace Talks had agreed to a temporary holiday cease fire. The effect was not to stop the ground fighting, but simply to remove the artillery and air support except in extreme situations. While the politicians in Paris shook each other’s hands, the ground troops just shook their heads. No matter, their team, R-8, was to be a Radio Relay, relieving R-30 that had been the RR the previous 4 days and had no enemy contact.
Four days before, on the 23rd, Ranger Team R-30 led by SSG Mike Smith of Ashland, KY, had been inserted onto an abandoned Firebase, Coordinates 999-219 on map Bao Duc 6532-2,. It was a hilltop running 1 KM West of Hwy 8B. The FB was cleared and surrounded with remants of the barbed wire once used to secure it. There were many empty emplacements and the remainder of structures once protecting friendly forces. The team stayed 4 uneventful days doing their assigned task. Knowing the enemy often left “booby traps” in expectation of units returning to abandoned sites, R-30 remained vigilant and restricted their movement to their relay location and the LZ which had previously been used when the FB was active. When the time came to be extracted, the chopper approached and inserted team R-8 while R-30 jumped on the same chopper and lifted off.
Upon being inserted, R-8 serupticiously moved towards a location further South than R-30 had ventured. The intent was to locate a site conducive to both communications and defense. R-8 was alert to the danger inherently present whenever increased helicopter traffic alerted the enemy to possible LRRP presence. While moving to choose a relay site, the team came upon what appeared to be a trip wire with a grenade attached. The TL instructed both Rangers PFC Ken Smolarek and PFC Robert Silva, both on their first mission, to remain at the booby trap while he and the ATL surveyed the immediate area for additional hazards. The TL reported that after moving 15 or 20M down the trail they heard the booby trap detonate. There were no witnesses to help us understand what happened, only the two mortally wounded Rangers. While we will never know what caused the detonation, we know they died our brothers.
A short time after lift-off, R-30 was summoned back to the LZ they had just left to recover R-8 and the casualties. R-30 TL Mike Smith recalled, in his “After Action Report” dtd 11/27/1969, “After extracting the team I tried to revive one of the wounded men but could not find a pulse or a vein to give him blood.” The chopper immediately evacuated the wounded men to the 71st Evac where both expired.
These young warriors joined K 75th despite the extreme risk, perhaps because of it. Many people have asked why would one do that. There are as many reasons for their choice as there are men. All share the trait of courage and willingness to give their all for their brother Rangers and their country. Some Rangers are never placed in mortal danger, while others seem to attract it. The unusual circumstances of their death cannot diminish the courage and heroism shown by these men when they chose to become Rangers. Some Rangers are destined to die surrounded by expended brass and the bodies of their enemy, others will die many years after their service, unharmed and surrounded by their loved ones. All will be remembered as having been among the best this nation can send to war. All are heros. They never needed to show their courage with results, their decision to risk everything for the promise of nothing made that un-necessary.
Rangers Robert John Silva, 18, and Kenneth James Smolarek, 19, died on a remote Vietnam mountain top surrounded by their comrades who, to this day, continue to remember them and carry their memory in our hearts. Their names are inscribed and honored on the Vietnam Memorial Wall at Panel 16W, Lines 126 and 127, next to each other, in Washington, DC by an eternally grateful nation.
Fifty years has passed in the blink of an eye. We have carried their memories and maintained their fellowship in our hearts for all this time without burden. As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, take a moment to remember their sacrifice that 50 years ago, this day, helped make today’s joyous family holiday possible. They, as well as all the brothers we lost, continue to inspire us today as certain as they did when they were causing havoc to our enemy in the violent Central Highlands.