Vietnam veteran can't forget the battle of Ripcord

By TORSTEN OVE | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | Published: April 28, 2013

Lewis Howard drew the short straw.

That meant he had to walk point on Hill 1000.

It also meant he would likely die, because in a Vietnam firefight, the point man and the man behind him were the first to be killed.

"We knew they were up there waiting for us," his sergeant and close friend, former Army Ranger Gary Radford of Franklin Park remembers. "We all thought that could be it for us."

This was the reality for Company D of the 506th Infantry Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division on July 7, 1970, in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam during the battle of Firebase Ripcord.

Named for a mountaintop artillery base targeted by the North Vietnamese, Ripcord was another disaster for the U.S. at the peak of the Vietnam War protests.

More than 250 servicemen were killed over a four-month period, including Weiland Norris, brother of actor Chuck Norris, and Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills.

When July 7 was done, Lewis Howard of Macon, Ga., was among the dead, along with Charles Beals, an assistant machine gunner from French Lick, Ind. Both were 20.

Sgt. Radford, who was knocked unconscious in the fighting, had to leave them behind on Hill 1000. No American ever saw them again.

The memory of that day tormented him for decades. Howard had been his radioman, close as a brother. He didn't know Charles Beals as well, but he was part of the brotherhood.

The mantra of the military is that you don't leave anyone behind.

"It always bothered me," says Mr. Radford. "You live with these guys, you're with them 24 hours a day, you know everything about them."

Once, a few years after he'd come home, he jumped on his motorcycle and rode all the way to Macon, intent on looking up Howard's family. He backed out and came home.

"I just got cold feet," he says.

But as the years passed, he decided he had to do something for those men. He had to return to Vietnam. After wrangling with the bureaucracy for nearly a decade, he finally went back in 1996 with a special military recovery team.

The bodies were gone -- but their equipment was still there: boots, a helmet, Beals' rusted M-60 machine gun.

Mr. Radford left most of it there.

"I felt everything was sacred on that hill," he says.

He brought home only a helmet liner and a canteen with a bullet hole in it and gave them to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. The military shipped the M-60 to the hall, too. The items are part of a special exhibit there.

"The 26-year interval between visits show the marks climate and the jungle have left on these artifacts," the display says.

But it says nothing of what Ripcord did to Gary Radford's psyche.

There is, he knows, no such thing as closure.

"It doesn't end," he says. "I think about it every day."

Two Ripcord films in motion

Mr. Radford's story is just one small part of the battle of Ripcord, the last major engagement of the Vietnam War but one that few knew about then and even fewer recall now.

Two new films, both produced by Pennsylvania filmmakers, aim to change that.

"The Ghosts of Ripcord," a documentary by Temple University grad John Daily and nine Temple film students, premiered April 6 in Philadelphia.

Mr. Radford was among the veterans of the battle who attended, along with his wife, Patty.

"I cried during the film," says Mr. Radford. "They did a good job. They found some guys who were articulate who could discuss the battle."

Mrs. Radford was so overcome with emotion that she had to walk out.

The second film, "The Battle of Ripcord," by independent filmmaker Shannon Lanier of Hanover, Pa., is scheduled for release next year.

Neither is likely to be a blockbuster, but the filmmakers say the idea is to draw attention to the sacrifice of U.S. soldiers as America's most unpopular war was drawing to a painful close.

The battle of Ripcord took place from March to July 1970. Back home, anti-war sentiment had reached a fever pitch, culminating with the Kent State shootings in May of that year.

In early March 1970, the 101st Airborne was ordered to open up the firebase to provide artillery coverage of the A Shau Valley to prevent the North Vietnamese Army from using the Ho Chi Minh trail.

But the North Vietnamese were watching and began a series of attacks. On July 1, they launched a mortar assault on the firebase, leading to a 23-day siege and the bloodiest part of Ripcord.

From July 1 to July 23, when the Army pulled out under cover by the Air Force, 75 men died. At no point did the U.S. have more than 600 men in the fight; the North Vietnamese had as many as 15,000.

The media was not allowed access to the fighting, so few at home ever heard what was happening. Most veterans feel the blackout was a direct result of Hamburger Hill the year before, in which 70 U.S. soldiers died. The military didn't want to publicize another defeat, especially at a time when so many Americans had turned against the war effort and President Richard Nixon was secretly withdrawing troops.

"For the first two years after I came home from this battle, nobody knew about it," says Mr. Radford. "It was the longest battle of the Vietnam War, but the news media wasn't allowed to cover it."

Three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to eight soldiers in the battle.

John Daily, 22, a Bucks County native, said he learned of the story while interviewing Philadelphia-area veterans for another documentary and decided to pursue it.

"It started out as a small project," he said. "Veterans from all around the country have donated money to make this."

His goal is to sell it to a cable outlet or PBS to reach a wider audience.

Mr. Lanier, 38, who runs Dark Ronin Films, has been working with the Ripcord Association, a veterans' group, to make his movie.

He has raised about $2 million -- he said he needs $8 million -- and has shot scenes in Maryland and Louisiana. His story will focus on a small group of characters.

"It's concentrating on these boys that became men and how their lives converge in this crucial battle," said Mr. Lanier, who works for a government contractor and whose father was a Vietnam vet. "A lot of these men just met in the last 15 years. They never knew each other, even during the battle."

He said he wants to portray the warriors as they were rather than make a statement film like "Apocalypse Now."

"The futility of the battle is key," he said. "Nixon was already pulling the U.S. out. This was the last stand of Vietnam."

Yet Firebase Ripcord was soon abandoned. After the evacuation on July 23, Air Force B-52s carpet-bombed the base.

The men who fought were left to wonder why they had been there at all.

"I was able to go on and live a nice life, but others didn't get the chance," says Mr. Radford.

His own story would make a movie in itself, although like so many Vietnam vets, he doesn't want to draw attention to himself.

"A lot of guys did a lot more than I did," he says.

Raised in the Rochester Road home in which he still lives, Mr. Radford volunteered for the Army in 1967, right out of North Allegheny High School, and went to Ranger school. Reed thin and tough, he trained for a year and then shipped off for Vietnam as a replacement.

He joined up with the 101st Airborne in January 1969 as a squad leader in Company D.

At first his platoon of hardened vets did not accept him as their leader because he had not been in combat, but in time he won them over. He had his first brush with death on June 9, 1969, in the A Shua Valley, when a rocket-propelled grenade killed two of his men. He was wounded by shrapnel but returned to combat a month later.

Lewis Howard, a draftee, joined the platoon in October 1969 as a replacement.

"He was an easygoing guy, a gentle guy," says Mr. Radford. "He would never call me Ranger, like the other guys did. He always called me sergeant. He was by my side every day."

Initially a rifleman, he became Sgt. Radford's radioman, hauling around the heavy radio and batteries to power it.

Sgt. Radford felt a special affinity for Howard in part because he was black, and at the time equal rights were the law but not the practice.

Sgt. Radford was a white man from Pittsburgh, an elite Ranger. Howard was a grunt from the South. They came from different worlds but were bound by combat.

By July 1970, they were in the thick of the fighting around Firebase Ripcord. The North Vietnamese were attacking the artillery base from the surrounding hills and it was up to the infantry to root them out. The combat was so close that the men could often smell the enemy because their bodies gave off the distinct odor of the fish they ate.

Company D spent two weeks on Ripcord doing a security detail, then moved back into the jungle on July 6 to patrol. Late that afternoon, the North Vietnamese ambushed a reconnaissance team on Hill 1000, wounding six.

Sgt. Radford, Howard and five others went to help them. The recon team was able to pull back, but they left behind valuable equipment, including a special night-vision scope.

Sgt. Radford, Howard and the rest of the squad were sent to retrieve the scope, but as soon as they reached the area, the North Vietnamese opened up with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. The squad had to pull back.

That night, Sgt. Radford told Howard and the others that they would have to take the hill the next day. No one slept.

The next morning, the 60 men of Company D moved out in two platoons of 30 men each. In Sgt. Radford's platoon, Howard was in the lead as they walked single file up the hill.

Sgt. Radford felt then -- and feels now -- that he should have been up front. But the men had drawn straws, using sticks, and Howard had drawn the short one.

"I didn't want to get killed," says Mr. Radford. "I'd been in for 18 months. I'd seen enough killing."

When Howard was halfway up the hill, the North Vietnamese opened fire from their bunker complex, firing rocket-propelled grenades into the denuded trees so that the shrapnel would rain down. He was wounded immediately and began calling for a medic.

"I never saw him get hit, but I heard him yelling for help," Mr. Radford says.

Three others were also hit but were able to crawl away.

Sgt. Radford and five men, including Beals, tried to get to Howard, but the firing was too intense.

Orders came for the whole company to retreat under protection from Cobra helicopters. As the platoon regrouped, Charles Beals was missing.

Sgt. Radford crawled back up the hill to where he knew Beals had been. He saw him lying near a patch of heavy elephant grass. He grabbed his foot, but just as he did, a satchel charge blew up and knocked him out.

Evacuated to a hospital, Sgt. Radford's war was over.

Of the 60 men in his company, three had been killed and 13 wounded.

"I did everything possible to get Lewis and Charles but just could not do it," Mr. Radford wrote many years later in a letter to Lewis Howard's family. "So did every other man in the platoon."

A mission to complete

Back home from the war in 1973, Sgt. Radford struggled with what he had endured.

One day in 1973, he jumped on his motorcycle and rode to Georgia.

"I got down to Macon," he says. "I looked in the phone books for all the Howards. But I just couldn't get up the courage to call them. So I just came home."

Mr. Radford got on with his life, working at a motorcycle shop, driving a truck, handling baggage for USAir.

Then, in 1988, he attended a military ceremony Downtown. A Gold Star mother there saw his 101st Airborne patch and asked him if he knew what happened to her son, a 101st member who had died in the A Shau Valley in 1969.

"I didn't know him," says Mr. Radford. "But I saw how important that was to her."

It spurred him on to discover the fate of Lewis Howard and Charles Beals.

The following year, his mother was heading to Florida, so he asked her to stop in Macon and try to find Howard's family. His parents were dead, but she found a brother, Guy Howard. In later years, Mr. Radford met Guy and another brother, Ted. He also tracked down the family of Charles Beals in Indiana.

He told them he wanted them to know what had happened to their loved ones and that he wanted to return to Vietnam to find their remains.

By 1992, the government had established the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting to find all vets missing in action, so the time was right.

He spent years trying to convince the Army that he was serious about going back. It helped that he had done research at the military archives in Alexandria, Va., that he still had his maps and that he could pinpoint where Beals and Howard had died.

Finally, with the help of two Vietnam vets -- radio talk show host Chris Moore and then-U.S. Rep. Tom Ridge -- he got permission to return with an MIA recovery team.

He had to start running again to get into shape so he wouldn't slow the team down, but in July 1996 he flew to the Ashua Valley aboard a Russian helicopter with a communist Vietnamese pilot. He was the first combat veteran to return to Vietnam with an MIA team.

The chopper landed and he again trudged up Hill 1000.

"It looked just as it did 26 years before, but it was peaceful," he says of the battleground.

Among the debris on the jungle floor, the team found Beals' M-60, near the elephant grass that Mr. Radford remembered from 1970. They also found a pair of rotted combat boots, size 10, that almost certainly belonged to Howard, and another pair, size 7, the size Beals wore.

They found no remains. Probably the North Vietnamese buried the bodies along with their own dead for hygienic reasons, although there were no signs of burial.

While the team went about its work, Mr. Radford knelt near a tree and dug a small hole.

In a moment captured on video, he removed two copper MIA bracelets from his pocket, one for Lewis Howard and one for Charles Beals, and covered them with jungle dirt.

"I bury these in their memory," he said to the camera. "I'd like to say a silent prayer for them, and all the men that were killed on this hill, and the hills around Ripcord, in this A Shau Valley."

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1510.

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