by: TJ McGinley
(© Copyright, 2008)
When the United States first started sending significant numbers of troops to Vietnam,
we were using WWII tactics. This didn't work because the North Vietnamese responded with guerrilla warfare, and it soon became clear that superior firepower and company-sized units were ineffective. A unit of 180 men moving through the jungle could be heard for miles giving the enemy time to react to our presence
Late in 1965 a young, highly decorated Lt. Col. In the 101st Airborne Division named David Hackworth, convinced his superiors that we would have a greater success rate using smaller, well-armed, camouflaged units, that could move quietly through the jungle. The first of these small units was created from experienced, hand-picked volunteers from the First Brigade of the 101st and became known as Tiger Force.
I was in C Company, 1/32, /101Airborne Division, a line company with around 120 men. We were operating in an area just east of the A-Shau know as Ruong-Ruong Valley when we discovered something that told me how determined our enemy really was.
On this day we walked into a natural cathedral fashioned by an eighty-foot canopy covering a 300-yard diameter clearing and surrounded on three sides by a river. In the center of this cathedral, was one of the largest caches of enemy weapons ever found during the Vietnam War.? We discovered five Chinese 85- Howitzers, several crew-serviced anti-aircraft guns, hundreds of rifles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and believe it or not – 58 Russian trucks full of equipment.
In the middle of our second day at this site, a message came around that a friendly unit would penetrate the perimeter in our sector and to be aware. They came out of the jungle like the name implied, silent, intelligent, cautious, and deadly--Tiger Force.
Clad in French camouflage fatigues, boonnie hats, and berets, carrying sawed off shotguns and AK47s, NVA belt buckle and bandoleers, these men had a look of people who meant business. They camped with us that night and their quiet confidence and obvious field experience drew me like a magnet. I knew at that moment, that if I were going to spend the next several months in the jungle, I wanted to be with people who knew what they were doing. In the morning I discovered that Tiger Force had vanished silently into the jungle while we slept.
In June of 1968, the First Brigade of the 101st was extracted from the A Shau Valley after being in the jungle of the Central Highland for more then three months. During the five day stand-down at Camp Eagle, several members of C Company including myself, decided to join Tiger Force.
Among these volunteers was our platoon commander Lt. Fred Raymond who not only joined the 30 man unit, he was given command of it. Fred is a very smart man who instinctively knew how to lead men in the field. It didn't take long before he earned the respect of all under his command.
I met some extremely smart and dedicated soldiers in Tigers that took their jobs very seriously. After just a few days in the jungle, I knew this was the group of men I wanted to be with for the rest of my tour.
During my three months in C Company, my job was walking point, so I was introduced to a man who had been one of Tiger's point men. His name was John Gertsch and he was in the middle of his third tour with Tigers. John took me under his wing and taught me everything about the art of walking point and surviving it.
Traveling through the jungle with Tiger Force was like walking with ghosts. We moved at a slower pace, nobody smoked, nobody talked above a whisper, and we mostly used hand signals to communicate. Silence and invisibility were our best weapons. Every now and again I would have to look over my shoulder just to see that there were soldiers behind me.
Watching John on point was like watching a puff of smoke maneuver through the dense foliage not disturbing anything while meticulously observing everything in front of him. He was a master, an artist at his craft; I owe him my life because of what he had thought me.
Because John was a Staff Sergeant, Lt. Raymond asked him to take a command position in the column as we moved, so John walked my slack just to see if his protégé had indeed become a ghost. John still liked walking point so he didn’t give it up completely.
Tiger Force ran recon for the First Brigade and would be the unit called on if one of the line companies was in trouble, but our specialty was ambush and recon.
Tigers were broken down into three squads, each having their own point team so one person didn't walk it every day. But walking point for a smaller sized, experienced, quit unit of combat seasoned veterans was a much safer job then walking point for 180 men whose sheer numbers spelled trouble.
One day we were hit and pinned down by a well-planned NVA ambush. Gertsch was on point. Instead of pulling back, John crawled forward alone. The NVA didn’t see him until he came up in the middle of their perimeter. Before we knew what happened, Gertsch had killed most of most them and returned with three prisoners.
Another time John led Tiger Force on a two day hunt through the A-Shau Valley chasing an enemy tank. Nobody stopped to ask john what we’d do if we caught up with it. The tank made it back across the Laosion border before we could catch it. Gertsch stomped where angles, or devils for that mater, feared to tread.
By the end of the Vietnam conflict Tiger Force had seen more combat then any other unit in the Brigade and become one of the highest decorated units of its size in the military at the time. Sixty percent of its members had awarded the Bronze Star with V, thirty percent Silver Stars, and two Tigers received the Medal of Honor.
Lt. James Gardner, CO of Tiger Force KIA Feb. 7, 1966 was awarded a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, two silver Stars and The Medal of Honor.
My mentor and good friend John Gertsch was KIA in the A-Shau Valley on June 19, 1969. He was awarded three Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars with V, five Silver Stars, and the Medal of Honor
Our commander and founder, Col. David Hackworth died at his home on May 14, 2007.
David was involved in every conflict the U.S. was in from WWII through Vietnam.
David was awarded eight Purple Hearts, eight Bronze Stars, ten Silver Stars, two Distinguished Service Crosses and was put in for the Medal of Honor three times.
Fred Raymond Retired with the rank of Major General.
Being a member of this elite unit of Ghost Worriers was the pinnacle of what it means to be an Airborne soldier.
Tiger Force Recon
1/327/101st Abn. Div.