COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TIMOTHY LICKNESS

The Soldier's Creed

The U.S. Army's Soldier's Creed, adopted in 2003, include these words, "I will never leave a fallen comrade." All branches of the military have lived, and sometimes died, by what these words mean even before formally adopted.

Forty years ago, on April 4, 1968, I experienced firsthand what it meant by a little known event in the jungles of, what was known then as, South Vietnam.

April 3, 1968: Company A, 2/502 Infantry Brigade, 101st Airborne Division set out on patrol searching for North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units operating just west of the ancient city of Hue. The Communist Tet offensive was over and the United States counter offensive had begun. After the sun had set, we encountered the enemy engaging in a fierce firefight that lasted most of the night. That encounter resulted in two soldiers being seriously wounded and we needed to have them evacuated.

Just before sun up our company commander called for a Medevac. Not having a landing zone that we could see, he sent the third platoon to search for some place a helicopter could land. I was the third platoon commander, and just as the sun came up we set out to find such a spot.

Fruitlessly searching for several hours, we radioed back that no suitable site was found. At the same time, Dustoff 65 was sent on the evacuation mission. Piloted by Lts. Ben Knisely and Mike Meyers, with crew chief James Richardson and medic Bruce Knipe, Dustoff 65 was going to have to perform the risky maneuver of bringing the wounded out by lowering a cable with a device called a jungle penetrater to which the wounded would be secured and pulled back up through nearly 80 feet of triple canopy jungle.

To do this, Dustoff 65 would have to be a treetop level and hover for several minutes while the extraction took place. The entire time, it would be a sitting duck. Just before Dustoff 65 reached Company A's position, it was hit by a rocket fired by NVA troops. From my position several hundred meters from the main company, I could hear the rocket hit and Dustoff 65 veer away. We later learned that Knisely and Meyers had somehow managed the aircraft long enough to make a controlled crash some distance away. The rocket had hit directly where Richardson was sitting, killing him instantly and throwing him into the trees below.

I had arrived in Vietnam five weeks earlier, had taken command of my platoon only three weeks earlier and had turned 21 only two weeks earlier. "Never leave a fallen comrade behind," I thought.

Believing I was closest to Dustoff 65, I radioed my commander and suggested I take a search party to try and find the crash site. The order was given and with two squads we took off in the direction we last heard their engines. Several hours later, we came upon the now-smoldering wreckage, but found no signs of anyone in it or signs of any survivors.

Fearing they had been captured, we spread out looking for some indication of direction we should go. No reason to be silent. The enemy already knew we were in the area and we were now in a race to find them quickly or lose them for a very long time. Our chatter gratefully brought a surprise. From under the heavy brush, we saw hands signalling to us.

It was the three surviving crewmembers who now recognized the voices of American paratroopers looking for them. They had perfectly carried out the escape and evasion training that all aircrews are taught; keep from being captured until friendly forces can find you. They understood the Soldier's Creed that someone would be coming after them.

It would take four more days to get the crew of Dustoff 65 back to the rear area. It was five days of continued fighting as we tried to secure the wounded and injured. We blew a landing zone for the second medevac to avoid losing it. It was five days of living in mud, eating cold C-rations and sleeping little. I would not be surprised if the crew of Dustoff 65 remembers little of those five days. Hidden in trenches and covered with brush, they could know little of the fighting going on around them.

Lickness served as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1968. A resident of San Diego, he is General Counsel for Golden Eagle Insurance.

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