Dale Richey joined the U.S. Army at age 18. After Airborne School, he moved quickly to Ranger training, and then he volunteered for Special Forces. In 22 years of military service, Richey earned many decorations, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device and two Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf Clusters.
In addition to three tours in Vietnam, Richey’s career took him to 15 other countries. He was a senior NCO, then a commissioned officer, and he finished his career as a command sergeant major. Fluent in Spanish, he taught trainees in South and Central America to be paratroopers and to fight insurgencies. He was a soldier’s soldier.
Although Richey experienced intense combat, there was something he encountered during one of his training sessions that alarmed him more than anything he ever faced on the battlefield. It was the Fulton Skyhook—a system that involved an airplane flying at 450 feet and snagging a nylon rope held in the air by a helium-filled balloon. The system was developed to extract cargo, including humans, from hostile territory using fixed-wing aircraft. A soldier in a harness attached to the bottom end of the rope accelerated from zero to 150 mph in a matter of seconds. Bobbing at the end of the rope, the soldier was then winched up to and inside the airplane. The whole process took about six minutes. It was state-of-the-art until long-range helicopters made the system obsolete. John Wayne fans may recall a captured VC officer being “skyhooked” in the film The Green Berets.
Before human trials, the system was tested on pigs, which have a central nervous system similar to that of people. The problem was that the pig spun uncontrollably in the air, and once inside the aircraft, the enraged porker would attack the crew. Humans, on the other hand, could counter the spinning by holding their arms out horizontal to their bodies. When Richey performed his first Skyhook, he understood how the test pigs must have felt.
“The Fulton Skyhook test scared me worse than any combat I ever experienced,” Richey said. “First, you’re snatched almost straight up. Then you’re being dragged behind the damn airplane going as fast as it is. It scared the hell out of me. And I did it on a dare on a bright, sunshiny day at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1964. My wife said I didn’t get my color back for 10 weeks!”
Richey’s military career started in 1954. When a recruiter told him paratroopers made $55 extra a month, he immediately signed up. After airborne training, Richey qualified as a Ranger, which included automatic promotion to corporal, just in time “to go to Germany with the 11th Airborne Division,” he recalled. As a paratrooper with a Ranger tab, Richey was tested and accepted into Special Forces and promoted to sergeant.
“I went to Bad Tölz and was assigned to the 10th Special Forces,” said Richey. “I stayed in Europe until 1959, came back to the States and was assigned to the 77th Special Forces under Colonel Arthur ‘Bull’ Simons.”
A legend in special operations, Simons led the daring but unsuccessful raid on the Son Tay Prison in North Vietnam to rescue American POWs in November 1970. Ross Perot later hired the then-retired Simons to rescue employees of his company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), from Iran. Simons got Perot’s employees out at the height of the Islamic Revolution, during which militants took over the U.S. Embassy, took 63 staff members hostage and held 52 of them for 444 days.
“I worked for ‘Bull’ for four years,” Richey said. “He was a hell of a man. We trained the Laotian army, the Thai army and Montagnards, and set up outposts along major infiltration routes. I was in and out of Laos twice and Vietnam three times. People talk about the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hell, there were about 100 trails all over the place [leading into South Vietnam]. So we went up along the Cambodian, Laotian and North Vietnamese borders to look for places we could defend.”
In 1966 Richey was selected for a program to help fill a shortage of platoon leaders and company commanders in Vietnam. “The Army took guys with 10 or 12 years service who were E-7s, E-8s or E-9s, and they just commissioned us,” he recalled. “I got into the replacement stream where you waited to see who lost the most lieutenants that week. The week I went there, it was the 25th Infantry Division. They sent me to 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry. My colonel was Alexander Hunt, a great American. Colonel Hunt told me: ‘You’ve got too damn much experience to be a platoon leader. We’ll probably lose a company commander before long. You just ride with me until something comes open.’ [One day] Colonel Hunt said, ‘I’m firing the Delta Company CO, you’re going to be the company commander.’ [That] was the best damn job I ever had in the service!”
Richey’s first major Vietnam battle took place at Fire Support Base Buell. “One night in August 1968, my company and Bravo Company were at Buell,” he recalled. “We were hit, fought all night long. The next day dead NVA and Viet Cong were everywhere. We lost four people KIA. We stayed in our bunkers and shot ’em in the wire.”
Les Knott served as Richey’s executive officer. Recalling FSB Buell, Knott said: “My first day, when I came in, I think it was on the 22nd [of August, 1968], I looked down and there were bodies strewn all over the field. The base had been hit for several nights, and we got hit several nights after that.”
According to Knott, Hunt insisted that the men in listening posts wait until the enemy was inside the first or second of three strands of barbed wire before moving back to protective bunkers. “We picked them up on ground surveillance radar and called for illumination,” said Knott. “They had ladders and were coming through the wire. That first night when I saw all of those bodies around the perimeter, I told Dale, ‘Shit, if this is the way it is in Vietnam, I’m never going to get out of here alive!’”
Knott called Richey “the best company commander in Vietnam,” adding that “a lot of majors and colonels didn’t have the experience Dale had. He wasn’t a medal hunter either, he took good care of the men.”
Richey’s Silver Star citation for action on November 27-28, 1968, reads: “When Company D was airlifted into an enemy infested area, they immediately were taken under fire. Constantly exposing himself to the withering hostile fire, Lieutenant Richey adjusted artillery and mortar fire on the enemy positions. [He] crawled through the holocaust of hostile fire to aid the wounded and direct their evacuation. His valorous actions were responsible for saving several lives and the success of the mission.”
After FSB Buell, Hunt ordered Richey to move Delta Company to Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain). The Americans had a communications site there, but it had been overrun. “Nui Ba Den was spooky, with rats as big as cats running through the bunkers, and ground apes that would run through our trip flares and scare the shit out of everybody,” Knott recalled. “They lived in the rocks up there; that was their territory.”
Tasked with securing Nui Ba Den, Richey ordered Knott and the Delta Company first sergeant to get ready to rumble. “We got almost all the ammunition of 25th Infantry Division and took it up to Nui Ba Den,” said Knott. “Dale ordered us to. They had to send somebody up to bring some of it back. We had all the hand grenades and M-79 rounds. We had a machine gun in every bunker. In some bunkers we had two. We weren’t about to get overrun.”
Despite the constant danger of combat, frightening events sometimes turn out to be humorous in retrospect.
“The Vietnamese used to dig spider holes, little holes in the ground with a cover,” Richey recalled. “They’d let our people walk past, then pop up and shoot somebody. We were out walking one day and one of the men said they wanted me on the radio. So I got one radio handset in one hand, and another radio handset in my other hand and I’m walking along talking on one and listening on the other when, right at my feet, this guy pops up out of the ground and he’s got this AK-47, swinging around toward us. I thought, ‘Oh shit, this is it!’
“This Vietnamese maybe weighed 70 to 80 pounds soaking wet, and 10 pounds of that [was his] AK. So I just dove on top of him. When I dove, I let go the radio handsets and they wrapped around my neck. So, I got these radio cords around my neck, I’m down on top of this guy trying to get the gun away, and I’m yelling for help. Well, my guys are just rolling on the ground laughing….I’m turning blue and they just think that’s the funniest damn thing they ever saw. Finally, one of the sergeants—thank God for sergeants—walked up and whacked the guy on the head with the butt of his rifle, then helped me untangle myself and asked me, ‘You all right sir?’ I said, ‘Hell no, I’m not all right, I almost choked to death and that little SOB almost killed me!’”
Richey had several close calls and was wounded three times. But he didn’t talk about wounds. “Usually, you get wounded when you get careless,” he said.
Still, Richey sometimes thought about the random nature of combat violence.
“On one operation, the man in front of me was killed, and the man behind me was killed, but I didn’t get hit,” he said. “Sometimes you wonder about things like that.”
Author’s Note: Command Sergeant Major Richey died shortly before this article was completed.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.