Interview: An Adviser Takes Command

Interview: An Adviser Takes Command

By Roger Cirillo
1/2/2019 • Vietnam Magazine

During the fight for Landing Zone Pat in August 1967, Colonel Raymond Bluhm’s company earned the Valorous Unit Citation.

Raymond K. Bluhm Jr. extended his tour of duty in Vietnam once, and would have done so again if not for a very close call in 1967. Four decades later, as a retired U.S. Army colonel, he remains impressed not only with the different culture shared by the South Vietnamese soldiers he advised, but also with the very long war each of them faced compared to most American servicemen. Bluhm had completed ROTC at the University of Illinois, and was commissioned in 1963 as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He initially trained in the Ordnance Corps, then transferred to the infantry and attended the Officer Basic, Airborne and Ranger courses at Fort Benning, Ga. His first overseas duty (1964-65) was in Korea as platoon leader and commander of an infantry company. In the spring of 1965, he volunteered for Vietnam. The Army needed him as an adviser, so he was sent to Fort Bragg to take the Military Assistance Training Advisory course, and then to Monterey, Calif., for Vietnamese language training. First as an adviser to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and then as a company commander in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), he served in Vietnam from May 1966 to November 1967, receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge, Silver Star, three Bronze Star Medals and two Air Medals. Colonel Bluhm, who retired in 1993 after 30 years service, recently spoke with Vietnam Magazine about his experiences.

VN: Where did your Vietnam duty start?

Bluhm: Initially, it was to a Special Tactical Zone, but that was canceled and I went north to II Corps to join the advisory team of the 47th Regiment,ARVN 22nd Division, at Tuy Hoa. I was assigned to the 1st Battalion. A major or lieutenant colonel was usually the regimental adviser, and each of the three battalions had a team of a captain as senior adviser and a lieutenant and two NCOs. This number permitted us to split the advisory team so that an NCO and I could go out with an ARVN company, normally the lead or the weakest company, whichever was most likely to get involved with something. The senior adviser would stay with the ARVN battalion commander and maintain contact with the regimental team.

My battalion of the 47th was in the field when I arrived. As soon as I processed in, [I was told] to join them out there. I was assigned a room in the American compound, threw my few belongings into the room, took what gear I thought I needed and off we went. When I got into the jeep, I noted the sandbags on the floor. We drove into the countryside, off a paved road onto a dirt road that meandered through the tiny villages. I had been issued a carbine in Saigon and had that ready on my lap.

VN: An M-16?

Bluhm: Absolutely not. I had seen the M-16s and the first versions of the shortened AR-15 carbine version at Bragg. But I had a .30- caliber M-2 carbine with two [magazines]. It had a selector to switch from semiautomatic to automatic fire. I think it was older than I was. The barrel was so loose in the stock that when you fired it, the barrel and the mechanism jittered in the stock.

VN: How were you received when you linked up with your battalion?

Bluhm: Great by the Americans. It meant that there were now two officers to divide up the duties. They were always happy to see a new face, and I brought the mail. The Vietnamese were friendly, curious about me, and polite. I eventually made good friends with some of the officers. My arrival meant that the senior adviser could go back and get a shower, so he left.

The next day we moved to a village where the VC had captured a couple of ARVN soldiers a week before. The soldiers had gone into the village to buy food or see a girlfriend and had been decapitated, their heads stuck on poles over the village entrance. We thought the VC had left but were wrong.

When you made enemy contact there was an immediate sitrep [situation report] called in by radio with the coordinates, the estimated size of enemy force and direction the fire is coming from. There was always somebody back at the regimental team monitoring your radio net. As we were arriving for the evening at this house—most Vietnamese houses had a cement area out in front that was used for a well and to lay out rice to dry—we were out in this open cement getting water when a burst of rounds started snapping over. And out 150 yards or so, four or five VC jumped up and started pumping rounds at us. Well, I was so excited that I just picked up the radio handset and said very loudly: “This is Bluhm, we’re receiving fire. Out.”

And I got this calm voice back that said: “All right, slow down. You’re receiving fire. Where are you, fire from where, and how many VC?”

Boy, was I embarrassed. Of course, I was the one being shot at, not him. Anyway, I tried to remember the correct sitrep protocol and get my act together for a good report as we were lying there with the ARVN exchanging small-arms fire with those VC. So the first time I was shot at, I was out there by myself with just one NCO.

VN: What did you think of the adviser position?

Bluhm: It was very difficult and required a certain personality to be successful. You lived and ate exactly as the ARVN did. And there were many cultural differences. It was often frustrating because an American officer is taught to take charge, to do something even if it’s wrong, to seize control of the situation and take action. The Vietnamese, particularly at the lower levels, would wait for instructions from the top. There were many good and brave ARVN officers, but remember, these guys had been in combat for a long time; they were not on a one-year tour. They had to survive the next year, and the next and the next. They saw too many people being carted away, wrapped up in a poncho.

So while the good ones had courage and personal initiative, they were also prudent. Often that prudence was interpreted by Americans as cowardice. That doesn’t mean that there were not problems. But an American, who came out and was looking at 365 days and then home, had a very different attitude than the ARVN who already had 10, maybe 15 years of combat.

VN: Did the ARVN have the same requirements for body counts?

Bluhm: I don’t know exactly what requirements they had to report back to their command, other than, of course, they had to show success. So the best face was always put on whatever happened.

We had no body count, but we did have the Hamlet Evaluation System. This was an effort by MACV to quantify progress by statistics and to bring together from all advisers our judgment as to the security of our area. There was a multiple form with different blocks to check and you submitted it monthly. It was an illusion, because one never knew for sure other than where you were standing. With so much uncertainty, one always tended to give the best report. If there was not a positive trend, higher headquarters would come down to find out why things weren’t going as they thought they should be.

VN: What did you do when you reached the end of your advisory tour?

Bluhm: I extended. In early 1967 the battalion was sent from Cheo Reo in the highlands to secure a section of Highway 1 under reconstruction. When the advisory team of the 40th Regiment, a sister regiment north of us at Bong Son, suffered some casualties, the word came asking for volunteers to help as they were in heavy contact. I was bored just sitting around the road, so I said, “Sure.” I was picked up by helicopter and flown straight to the team headquarters, given a quick briefing and flown out to the beach where I was dropped in under fire as an assistant adviser.

It was a good team, and I stayed with the 40th for the rest of my tour. The regiment worked out of Bong Son, patrolling the coast north up to Tam Quan and the I Corps border, which was exactly where the 1st Cavalry was also operating. The 1st Cav had its forward base at LZ [landing zone] English outside Bong Son, and we did some joint operations with them. One day while I was at English, trying to beg C rations, I discovered that the division engineer was a former ROTC instructor of mine. So I went in and talked with him about extending, and he arranged for me to have command of a company in the 1st Cav.

VN: Tell me about taking command.

Bluhm: In May 1967, I took command of A Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 8th Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). As part of the 1st Brigade, the division’s only airborne brigade, we considered ourselves the elite of the elite. The 1st Cav was an elite unit, but the 1st Brigade was the top. Most people don’t realize that for the first several years in Vietnam, there was an airborne brigade within the 1st Cav. And so the 1st Brigade was the only brigade whose men could wear the airborne tab over their cav shoulder patches.

VN: What was your experience with the 1st Cav like?

Bluhm: There was a whole different feeling with the 1st Cavalry than I had with any other unit, before or since. And I had a great group of tremendous and brave soldiers in my company. There was a deep team spirit and devotion to each other, and the willingness to do anything for anybody. I remember I was getting ready to leave in November from Dak To, where we were in a tremendous fight up in the mountains to help out the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I had turned over command and was working as assistant S-3 [operations officer]. All the companies were in tremendous firefights and I would see the choppers returning with holes. They would refuel hot—keeping the engines running, while the crew chief would jump out to pump fuel in—to save time while other crew threw in boxes of grenades and ammunition. In minutes they would be back out supporting the troops, in some cases dropping grenades as bombs. The stories that you hear about helicopters refusing to touch down or refusing to go into a hot LZ—never did you hear that in the 1st Cav. Just the opposite. Pilots would go in…and cut openings in the foliage using their rotor blades to pick up wounded. I have nothing but pure admiration for those aviators who flew those choppers.

VN: How many assaults did you make with the Cav?

Bluhm: I probably did 60 or 70 combat air assaults, plus many administrative moves into secured LZs. One reason there were so many combat assaults is that the 1st Cav had “Eagle Flights,” quick reaction forces where you would just form up in a company or platoon, drop down, sweep the area, be picked up right away and drop into another area. You could do three or four a day. On any operation I always had a potential pickup zone in mind.

VN: Was the tour with the 1st Cav more combat-intensive than your time as an adviser to the ARVN?

Bluhm: Oh, absolutely. The 1st Cav was out there looking for trouble. That was our mission, to go out and to develop a situation based on intelligence, or in some cases best guess. It was a pure cavalry mission, to go out as a reconnaissance looking for trouble, to start a fight, and then surround the area and pile on by air assault and clean out the area.

VN: Tell us about LZ Pat.

Bluhm: The fight on LZ Pat occurred August 9, 1967. The battle was about 41⁄hours long, but we stayed in the Song Re area another five days.

VN: Did you land in an LZ already prepared by artillery?

Bluhm: No, artillery was planned as usual, but this time it wasn’t ready. I can’t remember exactly why. Company A’s assault was part of an operation by the whole battalion. The battalion headquarters went into its location; another company and the artillery went ahead to their LZs while we were being picked up. The artillery was supposed to fire LZ prep for us as we went in, but something delayed them. In an air assault, everything is to the second, a very carefully synchronized ballet of air assault and fire support.

No one expected trouble on this LZ located on a high ridge. The enemy was supposed to be in the valley when I was to set up a blocking position. When the artillery battery was still trying to set up, we were in the air. We did have ARA [aerial rocket artillery], Hueys armed with rockets and miniguns, with us. They would lay down a wall of fire to seal off the LZ as you landed. Then they flared off and provided suppressive fire. It was very noisy when you landed, and it took a few seconds to know if your LZ was “red” or not. When you heard fire you didn’t know if it was incoming or outgoing. I was in the second lift or wave. I remember seeing some craters around the LZ that I thought were artillery, but now I realize they were from rockets. And quite frankly, within 90 seconds of being on the LZ, I was too busy to worry about it. You work with what you have.

VN: What was your strategy?

Bluhm: My scheme of maneuver was to secure the LZ, which was located on a narrow fingerlike ridge about 1,000 feet high, then move down to set up my blocking position on the valley floor. A higher ridge and mountain overlooked the LZ, but I was most concerned about a small valley north of the LZ. Some huts were seen there and it was perfect for a VC base camp. I was going to move my platoons above that area and secure it as we went to the low ground. On landing, the platoons were to deploy in a circle around the small LZ, one north, one holding the center and one to the south. We were then to go off to the northeast, swing almost 180 degrees around the bowl, and sweep into the valley.

Unbeknownst to us, the mountain and ridge above us were heavily fortified with an NVA heavy weapons regiment reinforced by a VC infantry unit. There were also bunkers on the LZ. We came in right on top of them. The 1st Platoon was on the first lift of six ships and got into position, but the surprise of our attack wore off and the others got pinned down as soon as they landed. The time between the four lifts was about 30 seconds. As each following lift came in, the later platoons became mixed.

The men on the far right nearest the enemy-held ridge were pinned. Rather than the platoon integrity I had planned, my men had to fight from anywhere they could. Anyone trying to move up was exposed and hit. The only cover on that ridge was about 12 inches of grass.

VN: When you were flying in, could you hear the small-arms fire?

Bluhm: Sure, but there was always heavy firing by the gunships and slick door gunners, so it was impossible to tell if there was enemy fire. We were seconds behind the first guys who got off, so to get information and control of the situation was the first priority. I had one RTO [radio telephone operator] on the company net, one RTO on the battalion net and an artillery forward observer on the artillery net. As I moved over the crest, I got a call from 1st Platoon: “We think it’s a hot LZ, but we don’t know.”

I looked up, and coming in was the next lift of six helicopters with machine guns blazing. It became obvious, as we began taking casualties, that it was not just helicopters firing. The enemy had earth-covered bunkers right in the middle of the LZ, and we didn’t realize it. I started getting calls from the guys on the far side of the LZ: “We’re getting casualties and we’re getting hit in the back.”

My 2nd Platoon leader, Bob Wilkerson, called and said, “My RTO just took a round in the back and is dying, we’re taking fire from you.”

I told him, “No, we’re firing in another direction.” I could see flashes of weapon firing from the higher ridge, but that didn’t explain the direction of all of the fire we were getting.

VN: When did you become sure you were not alone?

Bluhm: I noticed some human feces that were fresh and watery, as if someone had been eating rice, and I knew right away that we had bad guys nearby. I called for my 1st Platoon leader, Dick Hostikka, whose platoon was the least engaged. When Dick crawled up, he showed me a hole through his helmet. I told him to form a killer team and sweep the LZ as best he could. I then moved to the center of the LZ and laid on what I thought was a little mound. We were taking fire from the far ridge, but we were at the extreme effective range of our M-16s. If you rose up to fire, you were immediately targeted. We did have a 90mm recoilless rifle with four HE [high explosive] rounds that we fired at the ridge.

I wanted to get my M-60 machine guns forward where they could give suppressive fire so I could begin to maneuver people against those bunkers. I finally got a machine gunner and ammunition, and helped him set up; then I moved on. I didn’t realize I had been lying on top of an enemy bunker until some of my men spotted these guys popping up. Some of the wounded pointed out where it was. There were five VC with automatic weapons, light machine guns and SKSs. I turned around and Dick yelled at me, “We got ’em!” And I said, “Kill the sons of bitches!” They then threw in two grenades, which were thrown back out and exploded. The bunker was dug down with a room underneath where they were hiding. So Dick’s men got four grenades and dropped them in simultaneously and that cleared that hole. We had the problem of the bunkers on the other ridge and mortar and heavy machine gun fire from the mountain. Just about that time an F-4 Phantom came in and dropped a 500- pound bomb on a bunker on the ridge and blew it away. That eased the pressure on us and we started up the closest enemy ridge.

VN: Were you able to call in Medevacs?

Bluhm: I made the very hard decision not to bring the Medevac helicopters in right away. If I did, I’d have crashed helicopters on top of my guys. Both the helicopter and the Air Force pilots were reporting hits by heavy antiaircraft guns. One helicopter came in below our ridge and then came up the side like an escalator—I’ll never forget that pilot’s skill. He came up sideways until his rotors were just above the edge of the ridge and his skid was touching the slope. The crew threw off the ammunition and we lifted up the wounded. And then he’d drop back down and take off. My guys would volunteer to stand up to help every time he came in. The company itself was awarded the Valorous Unit Citation [the unit equivalent of a Silver Star]. A streamer is carried on the company guidon, and everybody assigned to the company in the future is permitted to wear the ribbon.

VN: Were any helicopters hit?

Bluhm: At least three helicopters were hit seriously. One was a command-and-control bird for the aviators; the others were slicks. Several took crew casualties as they pulled away from the LZ. The supporting Air Force Skyraiders were also hit.

VN: What was the performance of your company in this action?

Bluhm: Superb. They fought tooth and nail. Five Silver Stars were awarded plus a number of Bronze Star Medals with V device. One of my lieutenants, Pete Petrovich, received a Silver Star for engaging in a hand grenade duel with a bunker. He was throwing grenades back and forth with the VC until he finally wiped it out. The 3rd Platoon sergeant, Frank Theberge, jumped out of the helicopter and broke his ankle. He was in the last lift coming and so they were hit by the hottest fire. They knew it was a hot LZ, but they were committed and were coming in. I crawled over to him to tell him to get his troops forward. He was sitting there with his boot in his mouth and I couldn’t figure out why. He was trying to bandage his foot because of the fracture, and I asked him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “Sir, I’ve hurt my ankle.”

Then I explained the situation to him and he said, “Yes sir, we’ll take care of it.” He just put his boot back in his mouth and crawled off to direct his men. He later took a round through the head. I visited him in the hospital and put him in for the Distinguished Service Cross but heard later that he died of complications from his wounds and did not get the award. I lost six killed and 20 wounded out of 120 men that day. After the battle, we stayed in the Song Re River area for about a week. Major General John J. Tolson III, the division commander, flew in and awarded a number of medals.

VN: How was the awards ceremony?

Bluhm: I almost didn’t survive to be there. Before he arrived, I was doing a recon of the area. There were old punji sticks in the ground, and because of the high grass, helicopters couldn’t tell where the ground began. We had several men jump off the helicopters and onto the punji sticks. So I went on a little scout of the trail we were going to take. I walked about 100 meters and then as I walked back I triggered a booby trap. I felt a light tug on my foot and froze. I looked down and saw a wire was caught on my boot. Lieutenant Hostikka was about 20 yards behind me. I said, “Freeze, booby trap.”

I was expecting to feel the explosion and waiting to lose my legs. Nothing happened. I looked down again and saw that the stake holding the Chicom antipersonnel mine had broken. The mine had been there so long that when I pulled the wire, the stake broke instead of igniting the fuse. I waited 30 seconds, then carefully released the tension on the fuse, took the wire off my boot, laid the mine on the ground and marked it with some white paper. Later, one of my men went back and defused it. About an hour later, General Tolson came in and pinned the medals on us. I had been thinking of another extension, but that incident caused me to decide it was time for a break from the war for a while.

 

Roger Cirillo is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. He holds a Ph.D. in military history and served in armored cavalry assignments in the United States, Germany and Korea. He is the director of the Book Program for the Association of the United States Army. For additional reading, see: Lost in Translation: Vietnam: A Combat Advisor’s Story, by Martin Dockery; and Covan My: An American Advisor in Vietnam, by Steve E. Armstrong.

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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