Families, survivors come together 50 years after Special Forces battle to share memories, heal

A proper farewell

Families, survivors come together 50 years after deadly Special Forces battle to share memories, heal

LAS VEGAS — The enemy came down the mountain and in from all sides in the middle of the night wearing loincloths and headbands with a message written in blood that translated into: “We come here to die.”

North Vietnamese and Viet Cong special operations forces, known to the Americans as sappers, took the slumbering camp by surprise. The beachside forward operating base at the foot of sacred Marble Mountain was one of six in the region belonging to Green Berets fighting secretly “across the fence” in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.

But on 23 Aug. 1968, FOB 4 became the site of a brutal battle.

The attackers carried grenades, AK-47 rifles and bundles of explosives tied together, known as satchel charges. They swept in quietly and got to work, blowing up hooches and the ammunition store, pushing in air-conditioning units to throw in satchel charges, and firing at will as soldiers — some wearing nothing more than their underwear — jumped out of bed and ran into the bullet stream.

In one of the most deadly nights in Special Forces history, 16 American families would be shrouded by grief and isolated in secrecy.

This was the classified war. Their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers were killed in secret circumstances. They would not gather in memorial, nor would they learn for many years the heroic details of how young soldiers and combat veterans shook off the stunning attack and fought face-to-face with the enemy that had penetrated their inner sanctum.

Lt. Dan Thompson arrived at FOB 4 just days after the attack. As platoon leader for the Hatchett Force — indigenous special operators who conducted search-and-destroy missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail — he was tasked with helping to rebuild, man the listening post on the mountain, restore security and train, school and equip the South Vietnamese commandos.

The bodies had all been removed, he recalled. But the devastation was a constant reminder of the enormity of loss.

Paul Uyesaka, center, holds a plaque Oct. 17, 2018, commemorating his brother Sgt. Robert Uyesaka, one of 16 Green Berets killed in an attack on their base in Vietnam on Aug. 23, 1968. The event was the first memorial service held for the families of the men who died in the battle, fighting a top secret part of the Vietnam War. Uyesaka is surrounded by his son Greg and retired Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell to his right, and his daughter Brooke speaking with retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert "Spider" Parks to his left. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

“There was no time for grieving,” Thompson said. “The camp needed rebuilding. Security was on high alert. Recon teams were reforming and training. There was a shortage of men, so it was put your head down and put one foot in front of the other.”

Memorial breakfast

Fifty years later, Dan Thompson was standing in front of survivors and family members of those lost on that long-ago Aug. 23, 1968.

They had gathered for a memorial at the Special Operations Association reunion in Las Vegas in October — the first time families of the dead at Marble Mountain were given a place of honor. Relatives of 11 of the 16 Americans who died were attending, and for some, tears were already flowing.

Most had never met.

But sitting alongside the men who survived, after so long, the family members finally felt like they had a community of their own.

Mary Welch was a mother of two, including a 3-month-old, when her husband, Donald Welch, was killed. Beside her sat Ronnie Morton — her partner of 47 years. Louise Cogan lost her first love, Spc. Anthony Santana, just 20 days after they eloped. Paul Uyesaka sat stoic but overwhelmed beside his grown son and daughter, remembering his firstborn older brother whose shoes he never believed he could fill. There were MSgt Rolf Rickmers’ two sons, whose childhood memories of him continue to occupy their lives. Doris Ray Curry, widow of Sgt. 1st Class Harold Voorheis, who couldn’t stop crying, sat among the others.

All finding solace they didn’t know they needed.

“You think you are over it,” said Steve Bric, there with his wife, son and daughter and his sister Cathy. He remembered the pain of watching his mother receive that folded flag after his brother, Pfc. William Bric, was buried.

“Fifty years later, I am more emotional than I was a year after,” he said. “This is the most healing thing in the world.”

Bric was the first family member to find his way to this community of special operators. In the late 1990s, shortly after the declassification of the battle, his daughter Erin found a story about it online. It was written by John Stryker Meyer, a Green Beret who’d become a career journalist and made it his life’s mission to document their battles in Vietnam.

A memorial breakfast Oct. 17, 2018, honored the families of 16 Green Berets killed in an Aug. 23, 1968, attack on their base in Vietnam. The breakfast was the first for the families and survivors who grieved in isolation for their Green Berets. The battle was one of the most deadly nights in Special Forces history. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

“Dad,” Erin told her father, “I know what happened to Uncle Bill.”

Bric tracked down Meyer, who put him in touch with Doug Godshall, a survivor of the 23 Aug. 1968 attack. Godshall was Bric’s brother’s best friend and among the last men to see him alive.

When it came time to organize the memorial, Steve Bric was there to help contact families.

Those present at the breakfast had not been easy to track down. It took a handful of men who survived the battle and months of research and outreach by Bonnie Cooper, a former Army intelligence analyst and a Special Forces wife who saw an online post about the group looking for family members and volunteered to help. She tracked down families who’d had no contact with the Special Operations community for decades. Then she and Bric reached out, one at a time.

One foot in front of the other

In 1968, a year that saw more American losses in Vietnam than any other, Special Forces reconnaissance teams fighting secret battles across enemy lines paid an even higher toll.

Their casualties reached nearly 100 percent, with few escaping injury and many being wounded more than once. The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–Studies and Observation Group, or MACV-SOG, had the highest loss rate of any U.S. Army unit since the Civil War, said Godshall, an organizer of the memorial.

Godshall was among dozens of MACV-SOG visiting the base that night for a promotion board and grabbed a free bed in Bill Bric’s hooch. When the explosions started, he saw Bric grab his weapon and run out into the spray of fire to take his position with his men on the perimeter.

As Bric ran past other barracks, he shouted warnings, drawing danger to himself but alerting many sleeping soldiers to the attack. And even after being knocked down by an explosion, he got up, opened a burst of fire that killed an enemy soldier before being shot and killed, according to the citation for the Bronze Star with “V” device for valor he was posthumously awarded Sept. 12, 1968.

The special operators who survived the attack shook off their many losses and got back to work. The families at home buried their young men in quiet solitude, with little acknowledgement.

“Though we moved on, the accumulation of these missing men took up residence in our memories, and never left,” Thompson told the 300 people who attended the memorial. “For me, it was 16 more men, stacked away somewhere on top of the others who had vanished.

“Meanwhile, back home, 11 wives were left as widows; 14 sons and nine daughters lost their fathers, 14 boys and girls lost their brothers; 27 fathers and mothers lost a son, and life went back to normal for the rest of the community.

“But not for you,” he continued. “After the casualty assistance team departed, you had to figure out how to put food on the table. It was head down, one foot in front of the other. And you grieved.”

Sixteen Green Berets who fought across enemy lines in Vietnam were killed when their base was attacked Aug. 23, 1968, near Danang. This year, their families and survivors were finally able to jointly commemorate their dead. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

But on this October day, their tears were more joyful.

“There was something about walking into that room with all those guys cheering for the families,” Steve Bric said. “It was a way of getting peace — really at peace with it.”

The survivors

Pat Watkins looked around the room. All these years later, it was still hard for him to understand what the families had gone through. He’s often taken it on himself to speak to the widow of a lost comrade, but he never felt like he had the right words.

Much the same, the widows and siblings and children will never quite grasp the insanity of the clandestine war. How adrenaline, drive and steeled nerves gave the special operatives such an unshakable determination to face death no matter how many times it came calling.

Watkins went to Vietnam in 1967 with 16 people. He came back in 1968 with four, three of them wounded, he said. He had been wounded twice.

He was summoned from Phu Bai to Da Nang for the promotion board. He hated going to FOB 4, sitting as it did at the foot of the mountain — the largest in a small chain known as the Marble Mountains. But to the men at FOB 4, that peak was Marble Mountain. Caves and tunnels up there were known hideouts for the enemy sappers. The Americans long suspected that the monastery in the mountains had become an enemy haven, but because it was sacred ground, the Americans were prohibited from raiding it.

Already a seasoned fighter, Watkins would spend 23 Aug. 1968 bleeding from repeated grenade explosions — including one in which he jumped on a wounded colleague to protect him — dodging bullets and, armed with a .45 caliber pistol, killing more sappers than one man should be able to do. Within the chaos he created order, organizing a group of men to try to defend their area before moving on to the tactical operations center, where the communications guys — none of them combat fighters — were under heavy attack.

It was a long, bloody night.

For many, many years, the survivors only spoke of it among themselves, offering pieces to grieving families. Some of the men who fell were quickly chosen for medals. But the living received no medals for that battle beyond Purple Hearts — 66 from that night alone.

The battle would remain classified until 1992 but by then, the survivors had scattered. It was only much later, after former MACV-SOG lobbied incessantly, that higher medals were finally issued — 24 with the valor designation. Watkins received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest military award.

The survivors have speculated for years that the battle went unpublicized so long due in part to the well-known shortcomings in base security that had left it vulnerable. Gene Pugh, who was a communications operator, recalled that he took in CIA messages Aug. 19 and 20 that warned of imminent ground attack. It was only a few years ago that he and Bill Barclay compared notes, and they discovered that Barclay took in the same message Aug. 22, just hours before the attack. But the base commander never acted on the warnings, they said.

Bonnie Cooper, who spoke with every living survivor and family member before the memorial, said she gleaned from the men that the beach entrance to the camp, which was used by the locals, was known as a weak point. People often came in without being checked and the fence was not strong. Sand had blown off the claymore mines planted on the beach as perimeter protection, exposing them for all to see.

“It was just terrible security and everybody kind of knew it,” she said. “I think the reason it didn’t get the attention it should have was basically embarrassment. Heads should have rolled.”

Several wondered aloud how dozens of special operators could be brought together for a promotion board in the middle of combat. The camp, which Cooper’s research indicates housed 89 men, had between 140 and 160 that night.

“A fiasco,” Watkins said.

“Stupid,” Godshall remembered.

Whatever the reason, the greatest loss to Special Forces in a single battle remained secret, and for a long time, unacknowledged.

“There was no 24-hour news cycle,” Godshall told those in the breakfast room. “There was no acknowledgement from the White House, the Defense Department of this awful tragedy, and the Gold Star families were left to grieve in silence without any knowledge of the incredible service that their sons and brothers and siblings were performing under horrific circumstances.”

One by one, Godshall called each family in the room up to the podium to receive a plaque and coin. More often than not, as they sat down, Watkins walked over and put his hand on a someone’s shoulder.

“I wanted them to know that we as a group didn’t feel they died in vain,” he said.

“You’ve heard this a hundred times. Soldiers fight for each other.”

Unfinished business

Dan Thompson shared one final story with the group.

Something, he said, drove him to make his way back to Marble Mountain in 1994. So he went to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, made rubbings of the names of the men who were lost there and took them with him.

He found a monk who had lived on the mountain since 1968, who agreed to perform a “calling of the dead” ceremony to help the souls of those who died violently find peace and move on.

Each name was called, a bell was rung and a table was set for each man with a bowl of steaming rice, flowers and a lighted candle. The monk burned the rubbings.

Louise Cogan, who had been married just 20 days when her Green Beret husband, Anthony Santana, was killed in Vietnam, accepts a plaque and coin at a memorial Oct. 17, 2018. Cogan and other family members participated in the first joint memorial ceremony for families and survivors of 16 Green Berets killed in a devastating attack Aug. 23, 1968. Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes

The next day he and the monk climbed the mountain and scattered some of ashes. Thompson brought the rest home in an envelope, where it sat in a file for many years.

“But I didn’t have the sense of resolution I expected,” he said during his presentation.

This year, he placed the ashes and other artifacts in a metal box, which Bonnie Cooper covered with pictures. On 23 Aug. 2018, at the Wall in Washington, he called each man’s name, rang a bell and placed the box at panel 47 W, beside the names of the men who died at Marble Mountain.

A bugler played taps.

Thompson finished his story. He and Godshall stood at attention at the back of the room, eyes glistening as a video of their ceremony filled the screens.

OK to remember

Afterward, families and survivors sat for hours, telling and hearing stories, remembering.

Gene Pugh sat with the Rickmers brothers. Mike Rickmers looks just like his dad, Pugh said.

Steve Bric’s daughter Erin asked her Aunt Cathy what Uncle Bill was like. After all these years, she finally felt that was OK to ask.

Kind, Cathy Bric said. He had lots of friends. He always had a girlfriend. People liked him. He signed up right after high school without asking their parents. He was her best friend.

She felt honored by the memorial, she said, like she was part of something.

“I think it’s OK to look back and remember,” she added.

Nearby, Mary Welch and Ronnie Morton sat a table with former MACV-SOG Loren Yaeger, who showed pictures on his computer.

He told Mary how he was in the building and awoke to explosions. Like other veteran combatants, he knew to jump under his bed and pull his mattress over him. He saw a sapper inside the building and yelled at Donald Welch to wake up.

Before Welch could get out of bed, the sapper threw a grenade. When Yaeger awoke, rafters were on fire and falling and the wall near his bed was gone.

“The only thing left in that room was me,” Yaeger told her.

At Donald’s funeral, his body had been so fragile that his casket had to have a glass shield, Mary recalled. She never learned the details. She only knew she’d been unable to touch him or hold his hand or give him a last kiss.

“To me, it was just heart-wrenching to know that he wasn’t able to get out of his bed and run for cover — that he was killed instantly when that grenade or whatever went off,” she said.

The breakfast was a way to finally give him a proper goodbye, she said.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for all this time.”


Veterans, survivors share their memories, 50 years later

Those hairy first moments of the attack on FOB 4 in Vietnam still keep many of them awake at night. Speaking at the Special Operations Association memorial breakfast, Doug Godshall recalled the sounds of the battle: the explosions, the flares, the “shouts of desperation.”

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2018