I arrived in country in September of 1970. I was assigned to Company C, 1/503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade (separate). I was a blessed man. The 173rd was the only Airborne unit in Viet Nam and every member of it received an extra $55.00 a month as hazardous duty pay. That was on top of the combat pay of $65.00 a month the “Leg”, non-Airborne, soldiers received.
In April 1971 the 173rd began to return to the States. One of the first units to leave was the 1/503rd. I was then sent to the 2/503rd as I only had 6 months in country. I didn’t like Company B of the 2/503rd Infantry, so I wrangled my way to November Company, 75th Infantry Airborne Rangers attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
The Rangers were told that they would be leaving Viet Nam at the end of August. We went right to work preparing for the move as we were all more than ready to go home. We sent out our last combat patrol the first of August. It was an eventful patrol as a leopard walked into one of the patrol’s booby traps and was killed.
We began to pack up all our equipment including our weapons. All the equipment was packed on trucks and taken away to, I do not know where. Two Chinook helicopters were to transport us to Phu Cat Air Force Base where we were to board a commercial jet for the ride to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, our next duty station.
The two Chinooks arrived at about 2:00 pm. Each helicopter can hold 65 soldiers. One hundred and thirty of the 155 Rangers loaded onto the helicopters. That left about 25 of us standing on the landing pad. The Helicopter’s Crew Chief told us that they would be back for us. We watched as the helicopter lifted off and flew towards Phu Cat. We looked around and realized that we were the only soldiers left on the LZ and not one of us had a gun. I quickly noticed that I was the highest-ranking soldier which put me in charge.
We sat on the tarmac (landing pad) waiting for the helicopter until it stated to get dark. When it didn’t return, we decided to go back to Ranger Hill and spend the night in one of our old hooches. We were very worried about getting attacked during the night. The gooks had to know we had abandoned the LZ and they probably knew that we were the only ones left to guard it. We just hoped that they didn’t know we had no guns.
We picked a hooch in the middle of the compound, farthest from the wire. There were no beds or lights and we had no blankets or poncho liners to sleep with. One of the guys remembered that a captured AK-47 had been hidden in one of the hooches when the Army demanded that all captured automatic weapons be turned in to Battalion headquarters. This gun had been hidden between the plywood walls of one of the hooches, he just didn’t know which one.
We all went to work to find that gun. We also didn’t know if it was loaded or not. We divided into groups of three or four guys and began to look in all of the hooches. We had no lights to search by and we had no tools to tear down the walls. Fortunately, the walls are only four feet high with screening material to the ceiling.
In order to find that AK, we had to pull off the 8 x 4-foot piece of plywood that made up the lower part of each wall. We were trying to be as quiet as possible because we didn’t want to let the gooks know we were there, hoping they didn’t already know it. Pulling off the plywood by hand made a lot of noise, especially in the dark of night.
After about ten minutes we found it. It was an AK-47 with a folding stock. It had a magazine but with only ten rounds. We could now sleep somewhat easier knowing we had at least one weapon. All us slept in the same hooch by laying on the bare wooden floor. I slept fitfully all night except when it was my turn on guard duty.
The next morning, we decided to move out of the deserted LZ and walk to the main highway, QL-1, that would take us to Phu Cat Air Force Base. We planned to hitch a ride with anyone driving a military vehicle or if we couldn’t find one commandeer a Vietnamese truck big enough for us all to fit and then make the driver take us to the airbase.
While we were walking to the highway we heard and then saw a big beautiful Chinook headed our way. We began to run towards the helipad as the bird got lower in the sky. I remember standing on the tarmac watching it land then turn so the ramp was facing us. After the ramp was lowered, we all ran to board it. I stood on the ground next to the Crew Chief as I watched to make sure everyone got on board. The Crew Chief said something to me, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the noise of the engine and the wop wop of the rotor blades.
Once every Ranger was on board, I walked up the ramp and sat near the ramp. As it lifted off, I knew I was looking at Ranger Hill for the last time. A few minutes later we were landing at Phu Cat. As we were getting off the helicopter, we saw the Boeing 707 from Continental Airlines that was to take us home.
We arrived in just enough time to get an apology, for being forgotten, from a Major that I didn’t know, eat a quick breakfast and get issued new jungle fatigues for the ride home. After boarding the plane, it seemed like an eternity before we took off, but once we did, we all let out a yell in appreciation for going home, or to the “world” as we called it.
After I had been home for about three weeks, I was in my parent’s home watching the six o’clock news. There was a report about how the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) was taking over the fire bases the Army deserted when we left the country. I sat there watching as NVA soldiers entered Ranger Hill, where I had spent the last few months of the war. I could see the NVA entering the gate with the large Ranger Tab above it. Sad.
It was then I knew that the war was over. After ten years and more than 58,000 soldiers’ deaths, America had pulled out, and for what? I knew that one of the most significant events of my life was over. I had a flood of emotion come over me as I thought about all the friends and comrades I had met there, some of whom died there. I did feel a sense of pride knowing that I was fortunate to be the last Ranger to walk off ranger hill and LZ English. I was also grateful that I was home safe and unhurt.
As remembered by Ski Ingram, February 2019