With four LRRPs exposed, clinging to the tank’s turret as it backed toward the NVA positions, Pfc Coon shouted, “This ain’t good. We got to get off this tank.”
When the formation of helicopters—a command and control chopper, two gunships, and the insertion and chase ships—neared its destination where Vietnam’s Highway 19 crosses into Cambodia, the insertion and chase ships dropped from the formation and began an elaborate pas de deux of deception. With the gunships covering them, the insertion ship dropped into a clearing and hovered a moment, faking an insertion, while the chase ship roared past. Then the insertion ship rose suddenly and fell in behind the chase ship, which dropped into the next clearing to fake an insertion while the insertion ship flew past. The two helicopters performed this leapfrogging dance four times before the insertion chopper finally dropped its payload—four heavily camouflaged soldiers from the Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon (LRRP) of the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.
One of the four, the radioman, had never been on a long range recon patrol before, and the point man, also new, had never walked point before. The two veterans on the team had started their tour in Vietnam on the same day, July 21, 1966, and both were due to go home in six days.
One of those two veteran LRRPs, Spc. 4 Danny Harmon, had been a point man on a patrol I had been on with the 2nd Brigade just a couple of weeks before. I was a 30-year-old reporter for UPI then, mostly covering U.S. troops in the field. When I learned about the LRRP units that had been or were being formed in all the major infantry units in Vietnam at that time, and the “behind the lines” missions they were being asked to undertake, they earned my respect and my admiration. I wanted to write about them and the best way to do that was to go on a patrol with them. I talked my way onto a mission by convincing the 2nd Brigade commander, Colonel Judson Miller, that the eight weeks of Army basic training I’d had 13 years before qualified me. Miller did not want me killed on his turf, so he ordered the LRRP commander to handpick my team. Harmon was one of the chosen. We had set up a listening post near where North Vietnam Army (NVA) activity had been reported and soon found ourselves pretty much surrounded by the enemy. We stayed hidden in the jungle, hoping the hot sun of the day would give way in the evening to cloudy skies and then a heavy rain, which would be loud enough to cover the noise we made as we tried to escape. Harmon was one of the LRRPs who helped me get home safely. That experience not only enhanced my respect and admiration for what LRRP soldiers do, but it added an extra dimension: affection, not only for the four men who shared their lives with me on that patrol and the other young soldiers in the 2nd Brigade I got to know, but also to all the Army Rangers I’ve met over the years.
Danny Harmon was an Alutiiq Indian from a remote island near Kodiak, Alaska. He had grown up fatherless, reared by a mother who struggled to raise him and eight other children. Harmon and his siblings had learned to hunt and fish for the family’s survival, and he was so skilled at bushcraft that 1st Lt. Michael Lapolla, who had organized the 2nd Brigade’s platoon and was its first commander, called him “a ghost in the field. He walked around in the jungle like it was his home. He had no nerves.”
Harmon smiled a lot, was modest, kind and popular. His dark skin often aroused the curiosity of the Montagnard minorities who lived in the Highlands. He always carried a sharp knife and sometimes wore a feather in his hat. Although he had no special training before joining the platoon, the skills he learned in the woods of Alaska translated well in the jungles of Vietnam. Harmon was the ultimate point man—seeming to sense the enemy before he saw or heard him. The fact that he had been in the unit from its inception and had never been hurt spoke to his skills in the jungle. In fact, no one had been killed on any of Harmon’s patrols, nor, for that matter, on any 2nd Brigade LRRP patrol since the unit was formed the year before. Harmon had already been awarded a Bronze Star with V Device by a general who personally pinned the medal to his chest. The award was for disregarding his own safety to direct artillery fire on enemy soldiers pursuing his team.
Harmon had less than a week left in Vietnam when on May 31, 1967, Staff Sgt. Wayne Littlejohn of the 2nd Brigade’s Long Range Reconnaissance Platoon got a warning from brigade intelligence saying his unit would be ordered to make a bomb damage assessment (BDA) of a B-52 Arc Light strike in the brigade’s area of operations in the Ia Drang Valley near Vietnam’s border with Cambodia. The warning put Littlejohn in a difficult position. The 4th Infantry Division had been in Vietnam a year, and many of the soldiers who filled its ranks when it arrived had rotated or were about to. Littlejohn’s LRRP was no exception. The four-man teams he still had intact were out on assignments, and the only veteran team leader at Base Camp Oasis that day was Sergeant Ronald Bonert, who was due to go home on June 5, the same day as Harmon. The unit’s standard operating procedure was to not ask “short-timers” to take on dangerous assignments if it could be avoided. It could not always be avoided.
Aside from the short-timer issue, Littlejohn and Bonert had grown close while both were recovering from wounds in Japan. Bonert had been hit in the right leg by small-arms fire during an ambush, sustaining wounds so bad his teammates had thought him dead and abandoned him. Bonert had saved himself by crawling and stumbling after his team, finally catching up to them at a place they had stopped to rest.
Now Bonert was only six days away from leaving Vietnam, and Littlejohn really did not want to send him on a mission. But he had no other choice and he knew Bonert wouldn’t refuse. After all, the LRRPs were all volunteers. If there was anything mitigating about the assignment, though, it was the assurance Littlejohn received—and gave to Bonert—that it would be short: Go in, assess the Arc Light zone and get out.
True to form, Bonert did not turn Littlejohn down. But now the sergeant faced much the same situation Littlejohn had, and he solved it the same way, by asking Harmon to join the mission. Bonert and Harmon were both 21 years old, both were draftees and both were anxious to get home and out of the Army.
To fill out the patrol, Bonert asked a soldier recently arrived in the unit, Pfc Ron Coon, 20, to walk point. Coon grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis always wanting to be a Ranger, just like his dad, who landed at Anzio in the Allied invasion of Italy, was captured and sat out the rest of the war as a POW. Coon had been in an infantry company in the 4th Infantry Division for two months, when he learned the LRRP platoon was looking for volunteers.
Bonert had never worked with Coon, and Coon had never walked point. But the experienced Harmon had been training Coon on point and would stay close to him during the patrol. The fourth team member, radioman James Sommers, had just arrived in the unit. He was so new that no one knew where he was from or how old he was, but he and Coon had attended the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) Recondo School, known as the “LRRP finishing school” that was run by the Special Forces in Nha Trang—where the final exam was a live combat patrol nicknamed, “You Bet Your Life.”
The next day, June 1, the four men got ready for the mission and at 1300 hours, walked with their gear the 150 meters from the LRRP compound to the brigade helicopter pad and boarded the slick waiting for them. As they ascended, they could see all of Base Camp Oasis, now a small bustling city where something new was always being built. Located 23 miles southwest of Pleiku, about halfway to the Cambodian border, the terrain around the camp was rugged and mountainous with many small rivers and streams. An old tea plantation sprawled nearby, and Montagnard villages dotted the area. Soon after getting airborne, the LRRP team’s chopper rendezvoused with the two gunships, chase ship, and the command and control helicopter, and they headed toward the Arc Light strike zone to make the insertion.
When the insertion ship did finally drop into the target zone, it hovered a few moments longer than it had on the false insertions, and the soldiers jumped from its skids about 12 feet to the floor of the clearing. The men lay motionless for a few minutes, then did a kind of ballet of their own to try to deceive any enemy who may have seen them jump from the chopper. The soldiers first moved north into a wood line and continued in that direction for about 100 meters. Then they hooked back, heading south toward the Arc Light zone. Almost immediately they discovered a well-used, well-camouflaged trail with fresh foot tracks and recently dug “spider holes.” Since monitoring the trail was not the patrol’s mission, Bonert just noted its position and ordered the men to move quickly off it toward their objective.
At about 1700 hours, the soldiers found a large open area with tall brush for cover and good lines of fire for defense and set up their night defensive position. They were about 300 meters north of Highway 19 and 400 meters east of the Cambodian border. The B-52 strike had gone in south of the highway, so their position was near their objective. They would do their bomb damage assessment early the next morning, then likely call for an extraction later in the day. They placed Claymores on each of the four sides of their position, and at dark Bonert posted a guard. One man, 90 minutes. Soon after dark, a distant machine gun sent a burst of green tracers across the night sky and from then on, almost hourly, the gun fired. At another point, the soldiers heard noises coming from the direction of their insertion. Had the NVA found their trail? When the noises stopped as suddenly as they started, the team decided to stay put until morning.
At dawn, the soldiers packed their gear, retrieved their Claymores, sanitized the site and quietly moved southward through the brush toward Highway 19. They reached the road near a large berm of gravel and tree trunks that had been placed across the highway to interdict it about 150 meters east of the Cambodian border. They crossed the road and then moved west toward the border and south again toward the edges of the Arc Light zone. After a few minutes, they found another trail similar to the one they had seen the day before—camouflaged, wide enough for vehicle traffic and lined with spider holes. Not long after that, they reached their objective.
B-52 bombers were designed to carry nuclear weapons, but during the Vietnam War they were converted for conventional bombs, and each plane could carry 60,000 pounds of 500- and 750-pound iron bombs. The devastation the bombers left was awesome and awful, “a mish-mash of everything all twisted together,” as Coon described the Arc Light zone, “almost impossible to move through.” The BDA seemed pointless, as one crater looked exactly like another. So Bonert took a number of pictures and then ordered Coon to lead the patrol back toward Highway 14.
Bonert’s plan was to go to another point in the damage zone to make more pictures. Moving slowly through the shattered earth, and carefully avoiding the route they had taken going in, the four soldiers walked out of the Arc Light zone. As they did, they found yet another section of the same high-speed trail they had discovered earlier that morning—unscathed by the B-52 bombing. Since the trail was heading in the same direction as they were, they marched parallel with it for a while, searching for a place to cross. When they started across, something caught Coon’s attention, though he didn’t see anything. At that very moment, Coon felt Harmon’s hand on his shoulder, urgently pressing him down into the brush. When they were hidden, Harmon silently pointed out four NVA soldiers set up in an ambush position, luckily facing in the opposite direction, less than 20 meters ahead of them. They had walked up on the back of an enemy ambush.
The patrol backed out slowly and quietly about 150 meters toward Highway 19, where they found a bomb crater and laid down in it, watching, waiting and wondering if they had been seen. After 15 minutes with no pursuit, Bonert decided to get back to the north side of the road. Knowing that their mission was compromised and that they were the target of the ambush, they needed to find an extraction zone and get out. They moved from the crater toward the highway, and when they were within 10 meters they halted to search for a place to cross. Suddenly, as they started to move to the road’s edge, two North Vietnamese soldiers ran out of the brush 15 meters to their left and crossed the highway, heading to a ditch. Before the two dove into the ditch, Harmon tossed a fragmentation grenade after them, and Coon followed. As their grenades arched over the road, they were crossed in mid-flight by two grenades from the other side, neither of which, unlike the American grenades, found their targets and exploded.
The LRRPs, not wanting to hang around to assess the damage, began running east parallel to Highway 19, then crossed to the north side to head for the remains of an old French fort, shown on Bonert’s map to be about a kilometer from the border. It was in a wide, open area with plenty of space to bring in an extraction helicopter. As they moved, Bonert got on the radio to report the ambush site and the exchange of grenades, but held off calling for artillery fire on the enemy positions. When they reached the fort, they found only a heap of rotted timbers and a berm overgrown by jungle. But an old bunker at a corner of the fort provided some cover and fields of fire, and it looked like a suitable place for a routine extraction—if any extraction can be called routine.
While Harmon, Coon and Sommers set up their defensive position, Bonert called for artillery fire on the NVA positions and then radioed the 1st/22nd Infantry’s tactical operations center to report his team’s situation and request extraction. While he was on the radio, the battalion commander interrupted, saying he’d had an infantry company in that area the week before and it had found the area “cold”—no trails, no NVA.
The LRRPs felt as if the commander was “basically calling us liars,” Coon later recalled. “We were not pleased. Seriously pissed off would be an understatement. But we had no recourse. We were at their mercy.”
Helicopter extraction was standard operating procedure for LRRP units, but this time the battalion said it could spare no choppers and would send tanks and infantry instead. It was about 1000 hours then. As the day wore on, from their bunker the LRRPs saw a squad of NVA soldiers setting up positions about 300 meters west of the fort, near the place the team had bivouacked the night before. Bonert called in artillery fire. A few minutes later, Harmon saw movement along the south side of Highway 19, and Bonert called for more artillery fire.
A couple of hours later, around noon, with no tanks in sight, Bonert called the tactical operations center again to ask about the extraction. He was told a tank had thrown a track, and they “would get to them when they could.” The soldiers were getting anxious. With all the enemy activity around them, it seemed only a matter of time before they would be discovered.
At 1430, three M-48 tanks came lumbering up Highway 19 from the east, with an infantry platoon following in two columns. Bonert ordered his team up on the berm, and when the lead tank arrived, the commander, a first lieutenant who Coon felt looked “clearly annoyed at being out there,” opened the hatch and shouted: “You’re in the middle of a minefield!”
Although the LRRPs’ maps did not show it and it had not been mentioned in their briefing, the French had apparently placed mines around the fort many years before, and they had never been removed. Ancient mines were of less concern to the patrol than the fact that the tanks had arrived. But Coon, at least, was bothered by the tanker’s tone, recalling later that “the tank commander had obviously been told that we were lying about being in contact and acted pissed about having to come out and pick us up.”
The officer told Bonert to get down from the berm and he would back in and pick them up. Once the men were on the tank, Bonert briefed the officer on where they’d seen enemy activity. Then the tank commander, as if he were trying to prove that his commanding officer was right about the area being “cold,” ordered his tank, with the four LRRPs exposed, clinging to its turret, back toward the NVA positions.
“This ain’t good,” Coon shouted to Bonert. “We got to get off this tank. This ain’t no fucking good.” But the tanks were moving too fast to jump off.
Two hundred meters from the Cambodian border, near where Harmon and Coon had exchanged grenades with the NVA soldiers, the tanks pulled off the road, and the number two and three tanks fired anti-personnel canister rounds into the brush; then, without stopping, pulled back onto the road and rumbled west again. The infantry struggled to keep up.
A hundred meters farther west on Highway 19, as the lead tank carrying the LRRP team passed, the NVA detonated a mine, blowing off a track. A second anti-tank mine blew a track off the last tank in the column, effectively trapping the undamaged tank between the two. Almost simultaneously, NVA soldiers firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) opened fire from positions on the north side of the road. Sommers either jumped or was blown off the tank as the attack started and managed to get to the cover of a roadside ditch, suffering a small shrapnel wound.
In a matter of seconds, an RPG struck between Bonert’s legs, leaving him with gaping wounds in both. That round was so close to Coon’s head that the blast perforated his eardrums. He could not hear out of his right ear and could barely hear from his left, which was bleeding. Another round landed near Coon’s feet, ripping off one of his boots and puncturing his body with shrapnel from head to toe. A tiny sliver of shrapnel propped open his right eyelid.
Even before the third tank had been disabled, the crew on the middle tank began firing canister rounds into the ambush at pointblank range, and then the machine guns and cannons of all three tanks raked the ambush area with fire.
Harmon had been riding behind Bonert and Coon, next to a loudspeaker mounted to the tank for propaganda broadcasts. It apparently shielded him, so he was either unwounded or just slightly wounded in the initial attack. He was able to grab the now unconscious Coon by his web gear, wrench him from the tank and drag him to the safety of the ditch. Then Harmon scrambled back to the tank to rescue Bonert.
Amid the raging fire, Harmon climbed back up on the tank, and as he was pulling Bonert behind the turret for some cover, small-arms fire struck him twice in the chest. The impact hurled him off the tank onto the hard-packed dirt road. Bonert was still on the tank, unable to move, screaming for help. The infantry platoon, which had found cover at the sounds of the first blast, stayed safely out of the fight.
Regaining consciousness in the ditch, Coon could hear Bonert pleading for help. Sommers was near Coon in the ditch. When Coon asked Sommers where Harmon was, he pointed to the crumpled body on the road. Coon crawled out to Harmon, and found that he was dead. As he crawled back toward the ditch, the grievously wounded and exposed Bonert cried frantically for help.
Finally, when no more fire seemed to be coming from the ambush site, the tanks stopped shooting and the infantry moved up. Some troops helped Bonert off the tank and administered medical aid to him before the medevacs could get there. Other troops swept the area and found eight dead NVA.
Besides the LRRPs, the only other casualty was the lieutenant commanding the lead tank, who had been hit when the firefight started, losing his right arm at the shoulder. He and Bonert, along with Harmon’s body, went out on the first medevac. Coon and Sommers followed on the second, taken to the 18th Surgical Hospital at Pleiku.
Coon felt terrible because he did not help Bonert. “He was in a lot of pain…screaming for someone to help him,” he said. “I’ve rationalized it a million times. The NVA were using him for bait. But it would have ended the same if I could have gotten him or not. I talked to Bonert…about all of this. He understood. He said I did right. But in the end, I didn’t get him off that tank.”
Twelve days after he had been wounded, Bonert died at the 67th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon. He should have been home in Chicago by then. Sommers was treated in Pleiku and then apparently returned to his home unit. They were volunteers. They could quit anytime they wanted.
Danny Harmon’s death also weighed heavily on Coon. “Danny saved my life. I’ve no way to thank him,” Coon wrote later. “He was my friend and I don’t know how to repay him.”
After being transferred from one hospital to another, Coon’s physical wounds healed and he returned to the LRRP platoon, but his mental and emotional wounds haunted him. He continued doing recon missions, but began feeling that “I wouldn’t come back from the next mission.”
As the end of his tour neared, Coon was assigned to a mission with two new men. Nothing much happened, but the similarity between that patrol and the one that had cost Bonert and Harmon their lives was too much for him. “I quit,” he said. “I had had enough.”
Los Angeles native Tom Corpora joined the Army at age 17 and after his discharge worked for UPI and NBC News for most of his career. He first went to Vietnam in 1966 for UPI and returned for a stint as NBC’s Saigon bureau chief in the 1970s.