ill-fated mind

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lisbon man recalls ill-fated mission

The fog of war. It is a popular phrase these days, especially in light of an Oscar-winning documentary by that name, regarding the life of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The phrase was first coined about 300 years ago by Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz said war generates confusion, and described it as the "fog of war."In the case of the Vietnam War, there is no more ample description.For some who served in Vietnam, that fog is finally lifting.Such is the case for Thomas Lay of Town of Lisbon, who served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972. The recent discovery of four fallen comrades, missing for 35 years, and the subsequent funeral allowed Lay and about 40 members from his company to mourn and honor those with whom they served.

They remembered Maj. Jack Barker, Capt. John Dugan, Sgt. William Dillender and Pfc. John Chubb, who were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery last month.They also remembered the fog and confusion of one of the most ill-fated and controversial missions of the war that cost those men their lives.At the funeral were members of the Kingsmen, B Company 101st Airborne, a unit Lay speaks of with pride and dignity.Lay, an Arrowhead High School graduate and former Village of Hartland trustee, came to the Kingsmen 36 years ago, when he received his draft notice.After getting his notice, he immediately drove to the draft office in Waukesha and enrolled, to avoid what he would call "pounding the dirt" as a foot soldier. Lay was trained as a helicopter electrician, but he ended up "patching up" Huey helicopters.Lay was not just a repairman, but was also trained as a pilot, flying Hueys and Chinooks from time to time and serving as gunner at the back of the Chinook.In early 1971, Lay's unit was shipped to northeastern South Vietnam for Operation Lam Son 719 - an operation designed to halt North Vietnamese troops' movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. "We were invading Laos, where we weren't supposed to be. It was a whole new world," said Lay, who was 23 years old at the time.The operation was illegal under U.S. law because it was an invasion of another sovereign nation. It was a disaster in many other ways, and would also be the last major offensive supported by U.S. troops of the war.On Jan. 29, 1971, about 16,000 South Vietnamese troops were airlifted into Laos on about 2,600 U.S. choppers. The invasion was supported by U.S. long-range artillery and the Air Force, which flew 8,000 air sorties during the mission."It was the largest air assault at that time," Lay said.Lay and his unit were stationed at Khe Sahn, about 20 miles east of Laos and about 50 miles from the DMZ (demilitarized zone).The mission went about unnoticed, because the press was not there - not because of any military directive but because of the location, Lay said.Unlike the Iraq War, where reporters have limited access, journalists in Vietnam were free to go where they pleased. They did not go as far north as Khe Sahn because of the rather hairy and dangerous conditions so close to North Vietnam.The ill-conceived mission to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail and destroy ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam) supplies failed quickly. The South Vietnamese were routed by North Vietnamese troops and matters went from bad to worse."We had to pull out," Lay said. The carnage hit his unit hard."With our company, we had 20 choppers," he said. "At the end, we had eight left that were flyable."Of the 2,600 choppers that flew during the mission, 618 were damaged and 106 totally destroyed. The two-month operation accounted for 10 percent of all helicopter losses from 1961 to 1975."They were going down left and right. ... This was not a pretty situation," he said.Crews that had been shot down were brought back and flew again into the hot zone.Lay recalled the ferocity of the fighting by citing the fate of one door gunner. A door gunner was stationed in the large door opening of a Huey. If a door gunner was shot down three times, he would get transferred to the motor pool, Lay said.That policy was instituted because of the high casualty rate for door gunners, Lay said. In his unit, there was a 58-percent casualty rate.One door gunner saw only four days action during those hellish days. That's because he had been shot down three times and then was transferred out.He was more fortunate than another "cherry," as newcomers were called. Chubb was killed one week after arriving in Southeast Asia.Lay recalled working 72 hours without sleep, patching up helicopters. And "patching up" is an appropriate term."There were so many damaged. We'd patch them together and get them back up. There would be bullet holes all over. We'd take green plastic tape and slap it over the holes," he said.When the evacuation was all said and done, more than 9,000 South Vietnamese had been killed or wounded.The losses to U. S. helicopter forces were 55 dead, 178 wounded and 35 missing in action. Total U.S. casualties from the operation, which ran from Jan. 29 to April 6, numbered 1,462.(The invasion was also a political disaster for President Nixon, and the controversial operation led Congress to adopt legislation forbidding the U.S. from invading North Vietnam without Congressional approval.)The Lam Son fiasco is also the subject of many books, including "Where They Lay" by Earl Swift, regarding the recovery of the missing bodies, and "The Cost of Exiting" by Tom Mitchell.(Both authors were at the funeral and requested the members of the Kingsmen to sign their books, Lay said.)Among the American losses remembered last month was the Kingsmen's company commander, Maj. Jack Barker.Barker, who died two days short of his 32nd birthday, was a relative newcomer to the unit, Lay said. A strict Southern Baptist from Georgia, Barker had "a little hard time adjusting" to an outfit that had more than a few screws loose.The Kingsmen worked, played, fought and drank hard.Drinking was heavy, especially for chopper pilots, who called themselves "glorified taxi drivers.""A lot of them were shot down several times," Lay said.That's probably why they drank the most, too, he said. The pilots had a very fatalistic view of their existence.Lay recalled one pilot looking up to the sky and proclaiming his outlook for the day:"Today's as good as any to die," Lay recalled the pilot saying as he stared upward."Most of the guys already considered themselves dead, it just didn't happen yet. They had to have that mindset. It was a survivor's attitude."The Kingsmen, Lay said, were a "tight-knit and highly effective group."It was also not exactly military proper, Lay said."We had one of the rowdiest companies," Lay said. "We saluted no one."As Lay recalled his two tours of duty in Vietnam, he spoke of tragedies and the hijinks that occurred in his company. His emotions ranged from belly laughs to tears. The common thread between the tales was the pride he had for the Kingsmen and those whom he fought alongside.This was the main reason so many men came from all over the country, "just to say good-bye" to four comrades.And for Lay and others, to see the fog of war finally lift.VET GIVES FINAL SALUTE TO FALLEN COMRADESThirty-five years ago, on March 20, Maj. Jack Barker, Capt. John Dugan, Sgt. William Dillender and Pfc. John Chubb flew into a hot zone.They, like many in Operation Lam Son 719, never returned to base. They were reported missing in action and presumed dead.On May 4, 1971, E5 Sgt. William Tom Lay attended a memorial service at Camp Eagle in northeastern South Vietnam, for those men and other comrades who fell in an ill-fated mission into Laos.Fast-forward to April 12, 2006, on a glorious spring day at Arlington National Cemetery. Lay and about 40 others from the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles welcomed home their comrades-in-arms.The MIAs' journey home began in late 2005, when joint U.S. and Laos search teams found their remains. American forensic experts in Hawaii were able to identify the remains as those of Baker, 31, of Waycross, Ga.; Dugan, 23, of Roselle, N.J.; Dillender, 20, of Naples, Fla.; and Chubb, 19, of Gardena, Calif.The men are four of 839 Americans who have been found and accounted for in Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam War. Of those found and identified, 208 have been from losses in Laos. Another 1,807 Americans remain missing. News quickly spread of the discovery of the MIAs, and members of the company, known as the Kingsmen, made travel plans to the nation's capitol to give one final salute to their comrades. "It was solemn, but not that solemn," said Lay, from his Town of Lisbon home, of the ceremony. "It was a matter of closure for a lot of us."What was most striking for these Vietnam vets was the reception and, most significantly, the respect they received. So much so, it was a day of dropped jaws, double takes and "what the hecks?" - though a bit more salty language was being used."It was a real eye-opener, the way we were treated," Lay said with a smile almost of disbelief.For these soldiers, the reception they received 35 years ago when they got back stateside was not what a person would call welcoming. It is the antithesis of what U.S. soldiers receive when they return from Iraq today.Spitting, disrespect, animosity and seclusion greeted many Vietnam vets."This was 100-percent totally different," Lay said. That was apparent at the funeral service at a chapel in Ft. Meyers, Va. The old soldiers were given explicit instructions to arrive early, wear identification badges provided and be prepared to go through security screenings.When the vets arrived, the soldier at the gate looked at the badges and that was the end of the security check."The guy saw the badge, saluted and let us straight through," Lay said.That gave the vets a chance to mill about the grounds. Then something else happened that nearly shocked the former sergeant out of his socks."Everyone was coming to attention and saluted us. A colonel stopped and saluted me. I just kept thinking 'What the heck is this?' "The Army pulled out all the stops, as well. An Army band, a full rifle squad and a caisson for each casket were provided. After the service in the chapel, the caissons, squad and band marched to Arlington National Cemetery about two miles away; where about another 50 military personnel were waiting, along with four chaplains.Members from Special Forces, First Calvary (decked out in their black Stetson hats), and Rolling Thunder, the Vietnam veterans' group that ride Harley-Davidsons, were also in attendance.Stretch limos, "and these were real stretch limos," were provided for the four families of the deceased, Lay said.As Lay described the spectacle, he shook his head as if he still couldn't believe what had been before his eyes.What he saw was about 500 people at graveside ceremonies to honor four men who perished in battle 35 years ago.Following taps by a lone bugler, four helicopters flew over one of the nation's most hallowed grounds.This unexpected treatment began the night before at a service at a funeral home.As members of Lay's company, called the Kingsmen, walked in, someone announced: "The Kingsmen have arrived," Lay said. "It was like royalty. There were people saying, 'It's an honor to meet you.' ""It was a real eye-opener, the way we were treated," Lay said.The reception they received, not only at the funeral services, but also in the hotel and restaurants, helped heal old wounds, Lay said."We were finally being shown some respect and appreciation for what we did. A lot of people do not realize how tentative it all was. You could be gone tomorrow," Lay said.But Lay and his comrades-in-arms did live to see tomorrow so they could give a final salute and respect to those who finally came home.

Jim Stevens, staff writer
May 23, 2006

Ky. Miners Used Same Air Packs as Ill-Fated W.V. Miners

The Kentucky miners who died on the job over the weekend were using the same type of air packs as victims in a West Virginia mine disaster.
Five miners died on Saturday in Holmes Mill, Ky. in Harlan County.
Officials believe two miners died in the initial underground explosion.
Three others survived the explosion but died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
One miner, Paul Ledford, survived. A federal agency said Monday that Ledford's air pack did work.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration said the air pack functioned properly and Ledford used it throughout his escape.