A Personal LRRP History
Second Brigade, Fourth Infantry Division
November 1966 thru July 1967
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The author of this recollective history is Mike Lapolla. As a First Lieutenant, Mr. Lapolla was the founding officer of the LRRP unit of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in November 1966. As a Captain, he served a second tour with MACV (Hue, RVN) in 1969-70. He is a 1965 graduate of West Point and of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools. He now resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma; is retired from the University of Oklahoma; and is a consultant with the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
It goes without saying that I have often thought of our experiences 33 years ago. During that time I presumed I hadn’t forgotten much, but I am afraid I have. As I set out to write this historical narrative, I have no notes, letters, or reports from which to draw. I have read Frank Camper’s book about our unit, and have had conversations with several soldiers over the years. Each reinforces how much I have forgotten. Therefore this is a summary of my more vivid recollections. They were events that were obviously important enough for me to remember after 30+ years. It will be a series of unrelated vignettes and memories that will give one the flavor of our thinking. It will be a discussion of what and why we did what we did. I am sure others may remember the same things different ways. This is natural in that hostile situations naturally create different reactions from each person. But I have made every effort not to exaggerate and to be as factual as possible.
The Fourth in Vietnam
The 4th Infantry Division deployed as a unit from Fort Lewis, WA to Vietnam in July 1966. We were transported by troop ship as a unit. Upon the arrival in Vietnam we were deployed to Pleiku – and relieved the First Air Cavalry Division in the Ia Drang Valle. The First Air Cav developed teh airmobile and air assult tactics that relied heaviliy on helicopters. It was this unit that was teh subject of Mel Gibson’s movie “We Were Soldiers Once – and Young”. It told the story of LTC Hal Moore and a reporter named Joe Galloway. Joe wrote the book from which the movie was made. . After seeing the movie I exchanged notes with COL Moore – neat guy.
The 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division LRRP unit was formed by the order of Brigade Commander COL Judson Miller in November 1966. COL. Miller asked me to form such a unit. Earlier that month I was serving as a Liaison Officer for the 2/8th Infantry. I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces C Team unit out of Plei Djerang. The unit was led by COL. Eleazar Parmly who I knew as my Recondo instructor at West Point. As they were patrolling the Ia Drang Valley and the Cambodian border, the unit came under hostile fire. The soldier in front of me had his leg shattered by a bullet, and the soldier behind me was hit in the throat. His name was Sp4 John Mitchell. He died later that evening. I was the communication link with the 4th Division. I presume that as a result of that action I came to the attention of COL Miller; and since I was not assigned to a command it is likely that I was more readily available than some other officers.
As it turned out, COL Miller was a distinguished graduate of Oklahoma Military Academy in Claremore, OK – near my home in Tulsa. He was inducted into the OMA Hall of Fame and I am forever uoset that I didn’t know about it until after the fact..
As I look back upon the assignment, it was remarkable in that there was no paperwork. There were no orders, rules, regulations , or any structure to the initial organization. It was truly formed from scratch , or “whole cloth.” I had to make up the whole operating system as we went. Recruiting, logistics, planning, policies and procedures, operations , and emergencies were solely my responsibility. There were no other officers to help, and there was no precedence, so I relied totally on the most capable of our soldiers regardless of their rank.
At the time our Brigade was operating out of a base camp called the Oasis. I recall that the camp was nearby a colonial tea plantation. When I left COL Miller’s trailer, I realized I had no real authority; no checklist, no policies and procedures; no one to help, and nowhere to sleep. And no idea of why the hell I accepted the job. The only training and experience I could draw upon was that of the Army Ranger School which I completed the prior year.
When we started the unit, it was very important to have at least one person I could rely upon. That guy was SSG John Griswold. When I was assigned to C Co 2/8 Infantry in Dec 1966 in Fort Lewis … John was my platoon sergeant. It was our job to train the platoon, then deploy to RVN that summer. So I knew John for almost a year and knew his wife and children back at Fort Lewis … so he was the guy I turned to. And I think John was happy to do it. If nothing else John was “creative” and got things done. He helped a lot in securing gear and recruiting good troops. Over time I became very reliant upon Sgt. (E-6) Carl Wayne Littlejohn who acted as a First Sergeant , without the rank. And was a top notch soldier.
One of the very first groups I contacted was our supporting helicopter unit. I realized that everything we did would be supported by helicopter, and I wanted to have a good and professional relationship with them. I did and we did. Over time they would let me go on unrelated missions, and let me fly (steer) the helicopters enough to appreciate their skills. Over time the pilots got us out of some tough spots, and at least once I believe they voluntarily went in to extract a LRRP group because they personally knew us.
The next important thing to nail down was communications. So I spent time gathering reliable communications gear and developing reliable communications protocols. The first protocol was that our units would have radio contact with our unit 24-7, and our base radios would be manned by our own troops. In that way everyone quickly understood the importance of communications, and knew they could rely on their buddies if things got hot. In the beginning, the supply officer provided us with sophisticated single sideband radios that seemed to be somewhat cutting edge. While the concept was good , they simply were not as reliable or “user-friendly” as the standard PRC radios. We stuck with the standard reliable units.
I spent the better part of the first month recruiting from the units of the Second Brigade. I assumed I would be getting two types of volunteers: problems someone was trying to unload; and super motivated troops who would volunteer over the obstacles of their local commanders. By and large we received the super-motivated trooper. I was fortunate enough to have had Army Ranger training. Only a few of our troopers had any special unit training, because there was little available. Some of the first volunteers were those whose names have stayed with me the longest. They included Ron Speck, John Griswold, Wayne Littlejohn, John Sanderson, Charley Keogh, Jim Hart, Jim Umberger, Ron Norton, Danny Harmon, Ron Bonert, and probably the best soldier I ever met, Charley Britt. Others included Winford Snake, Lawrence Willey, Frank Camper, and Charley Dove. Charley Britt and John Griswold were with me in C Company 2/8th Infantry.
The truth of the matter is that most people in the Brigade had no idea who we were, and less of an idea of what to do with us. My recollection is that we operated at the discretion of the Brigade Commander and went on missions that were strategically important to the Brigade leadership. As such we were always attached, and/or operated in the areas of, the three battalions. In all honesty, I cannot recall when battalions and companies were not cooperative. While there was a potential of conflict due to mission ignorance, I cannot recall anyone who did not try to assist us. Initial operations were relatively simple as the Brigade leadership gauged the best way to use us, and whether we could cut it or not.
The most searing memory that I have of our experiences occurred when the 2/8th Battalion encountered heavy causalities. I think it was in February 1967. I was assigned to the 2/8th as a platoon leader in December 1965. I was placed in charge of a platoon in C Company and had taken that platoon through basic unit training , and subsequent pre-deployment training. We knew from the beginning that we would be deploying as a unit to Vietnam in the summer of 1966. We left the Port of Tacoma on a troop ship in August 1966. Upon deployment I was assigned to the Battalion HQ and remained there for the next four months. In February 1967, our LRRPS did some double duty by assisting in helicopter control at the Oasis, when necessary. That evening we heard of heavy contacts to the west. Then we heard that lots of helicopters would be coming in during the evening, As we were guiding the Chinooks in, we also helped to offload them. I was shocked, and permanently affected, when we began offloading body bags. I looked at the tags. They were the soldiers from the platoon I trained at Fort Lewis earlier that year. I still remember the names and have looked them up on the Wall several times. It was the first time I had encountered war death among people I intimately knew. It was sobering. Frank Camper was also a veteran of the 2/8th, was with us that day, and remembers the night about the same way I did.
Army pathfinder units were essential to larger scale air-mobile operations. Their soldiers were trained in the preparation of landing zones and the necessary protocols and communications to coordinate land-ground operations. As time went on, we also became friendly with the Fourth Division Pathfinders. It was ironic that the leader of the pathfinders was Lt. Tony Stricker. Tony was from Midwest City, OK. He was a former Colorado football player who played with the New York Jets in 1963 and 1964. The irony is that the Jets trained in my hometown during the summers, and my father was the local sportswriter. Also, 30+ years later my son is married and living in Midwest City. I regret that I lost contact with Tony.
From time to time different VIPs and reporters wandered in and out of our areas. By and large we didn’t pay much attention. But there were a few that I still remember.
Ms. Kazickas was a freelance reporter that we hosted for a day. I remember her because she was the first of several writers that wanted to visit us, and that she was from New Rochelle, NY, the hometown of my father. Her hometown and unique name made her easy to remember.
Jayne was the first celebrity that I had seen in Vietnam as part of the USO support. The other was Martha Raye. At the time, Jayne Mansfield was quite the Hollywood celebrity; she was billed as the successor to Marilyn Monroe. I recall that she was to be at Brigade HQ at 2 pm of a specific day. We had nothing operational at the time, so I went to see her. What I recall was that (1) she was shorter than I imagined, and (2) when I was next to her I had absolutely nothing to say. Nor was she a glib conversationalist. So much for starlets.
I recall little of this visit except the outcome. Tom Corpora (a UPI reporter) wanted to accompany a patrol and he couldn’t be talked out of it. So we assigned him to a “safe” operation with our best people. I remember Ron Speck and Charley Britt were in the four-man group. As it turned out, they set up an evening camp in the rain , and later in the evening an NVA unit set up camp around them. They had no choice but to wait it out , hope they weren’t seen , and escape. They did, they weren’t , and they did. Tom wrote a great story that went national. Forty years later we invited Tom to a mini-reunion. He attended with his wife – and gave us the original edited copy of the story he wrote. Tom is a class guy.
In the late Spring of 1967, I was informed by the Brigade S3 that they were brining in a Captain to assume command of the unit and I was assigned as his XO. The reasons given had to do with “needing more rank” or some such thing. I never believed that, and to this day don’t know the real reason. The only thing I am sure of is that the reasons given were not the reasons. Frankly, I resented the change in that so many of us invested so much time getting the unit operational that I was insulted. Nevertheless, I had little choice and tried to be supportive.
Things began to happen that gave me a bad feeling. I thought there was a little too much showboating and macho behavior for my tastes. One of the subsequent missions had one of our units evacuated from a hilltop under reported heavy fire. Frank Camper reported about it in his book. The infantry unit assigned to canvas the area was my old unit from the C Company 2/8th Infantry. They were also still short of officers because of the recent casualties they were taking. I was temporarily assigned back to the 2/8 to continue those patrols.
While I was on this temporary duty, I heard that the LRRPs lost two men, Ron Bonert and Danny Harmon. I was very upset because we had never lost a man during my tenure. That meant a lot to me. Then I heard about another casualty due to carelessness. I began to wonder what was going on. I think I know , but it doesn’t make much difference now. The essential mission of the LRRPs was to look and listen. It was never to search and destroy, or to engage the enemy except for self-defense.
Soldiers like Charley Britt and Ronnie Speck knew that and behaved accordingly. And didn’t get hurt. Becoming too aggressive had its risks. I tried to tell the troopers that it didn’t make a damn bit of difference if we killed a few of them, and they killed some of us. In the overall scheme of things no one on either side cared. The larger picture said that our information was more valuable that shooting a couple of lost NVA.
After the C Company 2/8 was stabilized, I again went back to the LRRP unit until my DEROS back to the states. I didn’t like what I saw, but I wasn’t in charge and tried to hold it together the best I could until I rotated home. I remember volunteering for a final mission just to pass the time. I recall coming off that look and listen mission, packing some bags, taking a jeep to Pleiku, and getting on the shiny silver C-141 Starlifter. The elapsed time from being in the field to getting on the plane was eight hours. I slept all the way to Japan. When we deplaned for a few hours, I called a family friend and he and his wife visited me at the airport. He was Sgt. Bob Beveridge of the U.S. Air Force. Bob worked as a recruiter in Yonkers, NY, and officed in the same building with my mother. When I was a junior at West Point, I visited Bob in Ulm, Germany. He is a good man, and it was good to see a friendly face. I knew I was really on the way home.