The Night We Killed One of Our Own
by: Hank Ortega, PA/C
(© Copyright, 1998)
The saddest event that can happen to a group of soldiers is to lose a brother to "friendly fire". As the saying goes: "Friendly fire, isn't". This type of event causes a great sense of loss, and unlike a death caused by an enemy, we can only turn our rage inward. It demoralizes the entire team, and causes all of us to question our own skill, and abilities. The pain never ends, and we never "get over it".
I have compiled this story from the input of those who were there, and from letters received from the family of our Tiger Brother, Ron James. As I get more information in about his tour of duty, I will flesh out his profile.
Ron James was a Tiger in November of 68. He was a well-liked soldier, who did the usual tasks of walking point and slack, and even carried the machine gun. He is found in the photo of the recently reinforced Tigers in Phu Loc, standing in front of the schoolhouse. He is 2d from the left in the front row of men standing. During this time Lt. Toberman was our Platoon Leader, Sergeants Gertsch, Paige, Field and Wade were team leaders. Toberman had been an Infantry platoon leader in C Company, and was know to be a good leader. The sergeants named above represent some of the best infantrymen anywhere. Their profiles can be found in the text portions of the 1968 Album. I was not present, being away on R&R.
Our job at the time was as part of a "cordon" operation of Phu Loc, a small town/village of about 1000. It had not only thatch type homes, but also built up areas of stone, and cement. Infantry Companies, both our own (1/327) and others (502?) surrounded the small town day and night. During the day, some of the platoons from the companies, and half of the Tigers would search the inside of the circle, going from house to house looking for caches, supplies, and other evidence of VC activity. The other half of the Tigers would rest, or sleep in the schoolhouse, or graveyard, until nightfall. It was also during this time that we went from 12 men to about 30, all experienced troops from the battalion.
At dusk, the activity inside the perimeter would cease; we would grab a quick meal, and get a briefing. The rested team would then proceed outside of the perimeter, and move out several hundred yards, in the dark, following a trail or small road, to an ambush site that had been selected by one of the daytime patrols.
This patrol left at dark on 30 November 1968. The ambush site was a fork in a trail, in thickly wooded terrain. SGT Jeff Paige led the 6-man team. On arrival at the designated site, the team was dispersed into small teams of two, with one M-60 Machine gun set up on the RIGHT leg of the trail.
Ron James and another man snuck out into the dark on the LEFT fork of the trail to set up Claymore mines and trip flares. Pulling the wires out to full length would have placed the men 100 feet or so out front. Certainly far enough in the dark and forest to disappear from view. Passwords had been discussed, and the men waiting at the position were briefed and waiting for the two men to return. Everybody would move quietly, never more than a whisper, sometimes crawling slowly, so as to make no noise.
While waiting at the position (left trail) at which the two men had gone out from, SGT Paige heard a man at the M-60 position (right trail) shout "Gooks!" A short burst from the M-60 sent a cluster of bullets down range. A desperate shout of "Friendly!!!!" rang out, and Paige hollered "Cease Fire" and ran to the Machine gun position. There he discovered Ron, instantly dead, and his partner, badly shaken. The machine gunner was beside himself, totally demoralized.
Somehow Ron and his partner had crossed the area between the two trails, and had come back down the trail guarded by the M-60. While the men, and their sergeant waited quietly for them to come back down the proper trail, they had gotten off the trail, crossed the forest through approximately 100 feet of woods, and joined the other trail.
Could this have been prevented? I know that that is a question that has been asked over and over again in the 30 years since, by family and the men involved. Where was the departure from standard protocol, if any?
I know from personal experience, that we would tie off the end of the Claymore wire to a small sapling, leaving a few feet of slack, then insert the blasting cap into the Claymore. This would allow us to hold onto the wire and follow it back to the position. We would tug on it before starting back, and the man holding the other end would tug back. When we came to a small knot or piece of wire tied to the command wire, we knew we were close enough to whisper the password or tug on the cord again in a prearranged pattern. Somehow, password or not, routine or not, the two men got disoriented, and came down a trail upon which they were not expected. Did Ron screw up? Did his partner lead him down the wrong trail? How do experienced warriors make a mistake like this? We may never know how it came to pass, we can only live with the fact that it did.
The question of drugs or drinking was raised. Apparently the family had been told something like this 30 years ago, by someone who had not been there. Basically, it didn't happen, it was not an issue, and a professional like Paige would not have allowed even a hint of this on a patrol/ambush.
A family lost a son, a brother, an uncle. They had many questions and no answers in the last 33 years.
Ron's sergeant/team leader has carried this story in his heart, for 30 years, and never a day goes by that he doesn't replay it in his mind, trying to find a point in the chain of events that would enable him to prevent the final moment. For many years, Jeff Paige has carried the burden of any leader, taking on the personal and moral responsibility. He has wondered for many years what contact with the family would entail, and how Ron's brothers in arms would be received. That has now occurred, and the family has been greatly relieved to finally find someone who knew Ron, who was with him in his final moments, and to get some answers in order to lay old pains to rest.
One soldier mentioned to me that he later met with the man who fired the fatal shots. He was in the rear area, working in supply. He had ridden the helicopter that came out to pick up Ron James. He sat on the cargo deck, looking at Ron's shattered body, leaking blood from the poncho in which he had been wrapped. This soldier was a ruined man. He reportedly left Viet Nam broken in spirit. He and Ron had been very good friends.
Stan Parker took this photo with Ron carrying the M-60. When he got it back from the PIO office, no one was available who had the address of the family. He carried it in his private effects for the last 33 years, hoping to someday meet the family. This wish has been fulfilled, and his stewardship completed, honorably.
Healing: Several of the men who were present at this event, have been in contact with the family in the months of May and June 2001. Letters have flown back and forth, and much healing has taken place.
We are in an interim phase now, waiting for official records to come to the family.
A final thought: If there are any mistakes or incorrect statements above, lay that at my door. I have only the letters of the family and the men involved upon which to base this story. Memories are faulty after 30 years, and I am compiling this from the memories of several different people. As new facts come in, I will edit.
I offer these words of comfort spoken by the great General Patton: "Do not grieve that that these men have died, rejoice instead, that such men have lived".
My purpose is to honor the memory of Ron James, Soldier, Friend, and Brother Tiger.