A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 1999/March 1999

Looking For Old Friends

By Jim Belshaw

Bill Wright's outfit -- 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade--got the call from Kham Duc on May 10,1968. The Special Forces camp near the Laotian border was under attack by a large North Vietnamese force and in grave danger. Five miles away, a battalion-sized element of the 1st NorthVietnam Army Regulars attacked Ngok Tavak, a small forward operating base defended by the 113-man 11th Mobile Strike Force Company with eight Special Forces personnel, three Australian advisers, and 44 U.S. Marines, artillerymen of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines.

It took six hours for Wright's battalion to be airlifted from near Hue to Kham Duc. It would take an additional thirty years before he could attempt to finish what began that day.

The airstrip at Kham Duc was being mortared when his battalion landed. His recon platoon set up on the airstrip while the infantry company deployed around the perimeter. The next day, the recon platoon was split into three teams and sent out to the Ops (observation posts) around the camp.

Wright's ten-man team went to OP1; the platoon leader, Sgt. Joseph L. Simpson, took his men to OP2; another team went down to one end of the airstrip. On OP1, Wright's team set up a defensive perimeter, improving as best they could on the triangle of three concrete bunkers built by the French long before the Americans came to Vietnam.

Early in the morning of May 12, OP3 picked up movement at the end of the airstrip. At 3:45 a.m., the NVA hit OP2 with a barrage of mortar rounds and followed it with an assault.

"I was an RTO [radio-telephone operator],'' Wright said. "There were calls going up to Lt. (Frederick) Ransbottom at OP2. He said the situation was they were shooting the NVA as they came through the bunker door. That was the last communication from the OP.''

The NVA force hit Wright's observation post at around 4:15 a.m. The first RPG [rocket propelled grenade] round blew two men off their weapon, a 106mm recoilless rifle. Harry Coen and Julius Long climbed back up to man the weapon, and a second RPG blew them off, this time destroying the weapon. They retreated to a bunker.

The NVA started coming through the wire. Soon the Americans were down to only one bunker and were ordered to evacuate. Wright left with another rifleman and had gone only a short distance when an explosion knocked them down. When Wright regained his feet, he found his American comrade unconscious but alive. Two Vietnamese CIDGs (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) evacuating with them lay dead.

Wright stayed on the side of the hill near the bunker, waiting for Simpson and the other Americans to join him, but they were trapped in the bunker. Simpson could receive incoming messages on his damaged radio but could transmit only a short distance.

Wright radioed the battalion commander, and a three-way radio conversation ensued. The commander sent in artillery rounds. Wright observed the impact and then talked to Simpson in the bunker and back to the commander with readjustments for the artillery fire. Throughout, the NVA continued to assault the bunker.

"When the gunships got up there, the NVA would set up a .51 caliber or 37mm anti-aircraft gun, and they'd start firing on the gunships once they got close enough,'' Wright said.

His commander ordered him to leave the hill near Simpson's bunker and to radio in from nearby high ground. By then, the American with Wright had regained consciousness and was able to walk. They made it to a neighboring hill and again radioed the commander.

"After that I never heard from Simpson or any of the others in the bunker anymore,'' Wright said. "The colonel told us to get back to the airstrip as best we could, and that's what we did. We never did run into any NVA. We saw them in the valley behind the OP, but we never ran into them. When we got back to the Special Forces camp at the airstrip, it was under attack by a large number of NVA. Finally, they got us out of there on a C-130 and they flew us back to Da Nang.''

In the summer of 1998, Bill Wright flew to Da Nang once more, then traveled overland to Kham Duc. It was the only place in Vietnam he wished to see. He'd come to look for old friends.
                                 ******

Ngok Tavak and Kham Duc produced more American MIAs than any other single engagement in the Vietnam War. The twelve Americans unaccounted for at Ngok Tavak and the twenty at Kham Duc are classified as KIA/BNR (Killed In Action/Body Not Recovered). Until this past summer, none had been accounted for, but now Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) has found strong evidence that at least some of the Ngok Tavak missing may have been found.

In early 1992, largely through the efforts of Tim Brown, a Marine Corps survivor of Ngok Tavak, VVA began an effort to bring resolution to the MIA cases at that site and at Kham Duc. Working with family members and U.S. government agencies, Brown amassed declassified documents, reports, oral histories, and personal recollections from survivors of the battles.

"My focus on Ngok Tavak and Kham Duc has been ongoing since 1968,'' Brown said. "Over the years, it's been a matter of contacting guys who were there, gathering information and bringing it to the VVA table in 1992, initially to the POW/MIA Committee. To summarize what it's been all about, from 1992 until the present, there's been a constant and relentless focus on the battle by veterans of the units involved as well as the advocacy conducted through the VVA's Veterans Initiative.''

In July 1997, VVA's  POW/MIA Committee met with Gen. James Wold, then Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA Affairs. Bill Wright had been invited to present information to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) based on his fourteen years of research into the battles. Wright's presentation proved so compelling that VVA proposed he be included as a team member on the next scheduled JTF-FA site excavation at Kham Duc.

Wright said he would "go in a heartbeat.'' He'd been waiting a long time to find his lost friends.

"I always kept my eyes open, but nothing on any grand scale,'' he said from his home in Moore, Okla. "Somewhere around 1984, I was reading a book, Survivors. It was about a jungle POW camp. Several Americans were there. Halfway through the book, it talked about a new prisoner who was brought in. They said he'd been captured at a Special Forces camp and they called him Long.''

Wright stared at the name in the book. He thought Julius Long, one of the two men blown off the recoilless rifle by RPG fire, had died on the OP. He could hardly believe that his friend Julius had been captured, not killed. As he continued to read, doubt dissolved into certainty. Julius Long had survived.

Thinking that perhaps others he assumed had been killed had in fact survived, Wright called Lt. Frederick Ransbottom's mother in Oklahoma City. She told him that only Long had been taken prisoner and that the rest were MIA, including her son.

"She gave me a world of information, and that's where it all started,'' he said.

Wright found a one-page report summarizing the reoccupation of Kham Duc by American forces in 1970. Five remains of his recon platoon members were found then. Soon after, he came across a more detailed report on OP1 and OP2. After reading it, he was certain that only two of the three bunkers on the hill had been found. He passed along the information to Mrs. Ransbottom. At a Washington MIA function, she showed it to VVA's Sara Bernasconi.

In his many phone conversations with Mrs. Ransbottom, he learned of a Vietnamese film, Victory Over the Americans at Kham Duc. She told him that an American POW was shown clearly as he walked toward the camera. Several people had contacted Julius Long in the hope that he would view the film and possibly identify the POW. Long refused to see anyone.

Bill Wright wrote to him.

"He wrote back and said just call him or send him my number,'' Wright said. "I called and we talked a long time. He told me he didn't want anything to do with it. He said what he really wanted to do was just sit under a tree and drink a beer with me. I said, `Pick your weekend, and I'll be up there.' Two weeks later, I was on a plane flying to Virginia.''

Julius Long filled in blanks for Wright, providing details about what happened after he was blown off the recoilless rifle and then trapped in the bunker. Sgt. Simpson had been severely wounded and died during the night. The next day, Julius headed down a road he thought would take him to Chu Lai and safety. He was captured a few days later.

They watched the film of the captured American, but Long couldn't identify the wounded man walking toward the camera. Nonetheless, Wright was ecstatic to be with his old friend.

"He was glad to see me, and it was great seeing him,'' he said. "It was like seeing a ghost, but a very friendly one. Julius was one of the greatest people I've known.''

Shortly before the 1997 meeting at DPMO, Sara Bernasconi asked Wright if he would go to Washington and brief DPMO about his conversations with Julius Long and alert the office to Wright's belief that a third bunker had not yet been discovered at the Kham Duc OPs. Wright agreed to the meeting, and Bernasconi suggested that he call Long once more to verify his inability to identify the POW in the film.

When Wright called, he found Long nervous, saying that he'd like to look at the film once more, and this time, he would have his family with him.

"He said he got together with his brother and sister, and they told Julius that it was him walking toward the camera in that film,'' Wright said. "He didn't recognize himself. I didn't, either, until after I talked to him and went back and looked at it again. I'm sure of it now. It's Julius. I can tell now by the way he walks, the way he carries himself.''

At the DPMO meeting, Wright reported on Julius Long and on his belief that a third bunker existed. An analyst told him they'd been in the area several times and said they weren't even sure if they were on the right hill. Wright mentioned the conversation to Bernasconi. She asked if he'd be interested in returning to Kham Duc as part of a recovery team.

"I said I'd go back in a heartbeat,'' he said. "I wanted to find these guys. They were my friends.''
                                 ******

Bill Wright met the recovery team in Hawaii. On June 21, they flew to Thailand, assembled equipment, flew up-country to northern Thailand and then across to Da Nang. For the first time since 1968, Bill Wright looked out at Vietnam when the C-17 loadmaster lowered the tailgate. What Wright saw made him very nervous.

"There were two soldiers, what I'd call NVA soldiers,'' he said. "I broke into a cold sweat until I saw they were armed with cellular telephones.''

After spending the night in Da Nang, they loaded equipment into four-wheel-drive vehicles and headed out to Kham Duc. The eighty-mile drive on Highway 14 took nine hours.

"You start thinking to yourself that you're going back to something you tried so damn hard to get away from,'' he said. "You wonder, when I get there, am I going to find what I'm looking for? All these questions kept coming up.''

At Kham Duc, his eyes at first deceived him. What stood before him, a village of 5,000 people with permanent, concrete buildings, wasn't the Kham Duc he left in 1968, an isolated outpost under a thunderous wartime attack.

The recovery team was put up in two guesthouses. Through the wide-open windows of his room, Wright looked out at OP2 and he easily recognized all the old landmarks. He knew exactly where he was. Despite the small town that had grown from the jungle, Wright had no trouble reacquainting himself. The bombed, napalmed vegetation may have grown back, but the salient topography had endured.

The next morning, the recovery team met with two Vietnamese witnesses to the battle and interviewed them about dead and missing Americans. A few days later, business negotiations began between local officials and the recovery team. After a day of haggling, an agreement was reached on the cost of local workers and other charges.

On June 28, the team persuaded the Vietnamese to make an exploratory trip to Ngok Tavak. Back in Texas, Tim Brown learned that the recovery team's trip to Ngok Tavak would lead to astonishing results.

"I guess the lid blew off with that,'' Brown said. "The JTF's Maj. Kenneth Royalty started contacting me. They had a review of a lot of the information we had sent them in the past. They took some of the map information I and other Marines had constructed, an illustration of where the bodies were left when Ngok Tavak was evacuated. When Bill Wright and the recovery team went over that day, the anthropologists got real excited because they found Ngok Tavak to be in pretty much pristine condition, as far as Vietnam battlefields go.''

A JTF recovery operation at Ngok Tavak from August 25 through September 19 recovered possible skeletal and dental remains, personal effects, and material evidence, such as a wallet, identification and Social Security cards, U.S.-made weapons, personal field gear, and uniform items.

No identifications or an accurate total of how many individuals were found has been made yet. The remains and other materials continue to undergo analysis at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

Additional recovery efforts at Ngok Tavak will resume when the weather clears in the area. The JTF-FA newsletter, The Bright Light, reported in its August issue, "What has been a local danger area [because of numerous unexploded ordnance] is now relatively safe, and the local populace is eager to experience the history of Ngok Tavak. [The recovery team] is currently sharing their extensive videos, site sketches, and a wealth of investigative information with the future recovery team to ensure the fullest possible accounting for the brave men lost during the battle at Ngok Tavak.''

"They were my friends on that hilltop, and I believed I could do something about it,'' Brown said. "I took it seriously, being a Marine and an American serviceman. We don't leave our dead on the battlefield. It troubled me for a number of years. I felt that any of us who survived that battle owed it to the families of those who didn't to do everything that could be done to achieve the fullest possible accounting. I would like to think that if it had been me left up on that hilltop, that my surviving Marine brothers would have done the same thing. And I believe they would have.''

Bill Duker, Veterans Initiative Task Force Chair, said the relationship between VVA and JTF has grown to one of mutual trust and confidence in the five years VVA has been working with the detachment headquartered in Hanoi. Duker said the early years, marked by a wary, official distance on JTF's part, have evolved into an alliance in which information is freely shared.

In addition, he said, VVA's continued efforts through the Veterans Initiative have led to Vietnamese veterans coming forward to provide information on missing Americans. Duker noted another case in which a former Vietnamese soldier voluntarily disclosed that he had buried an American, this one in 1966. VVA passed the information to JTF, which until then had been unaware of the possible burial site.

"A week later, JTF said it was good information,'' Duker said. "They'd started an investigation already. It was an excellent example of the kind of information we can provide.''

Duker pointed to Ngok Tavak as a "major success'' for VVA and emphasized the importance of Brown's contribution to it.  "I have in the past and will continue to give Tim Brown a big hunk of the credit,'' Duker said. "He is the guy who started it, pushed it, and gave us all the background so we could go forward in our efforts with the Veterans Initiative. He gave us maps, interviews, all the things that needed to be done.''
                                 ******
Two days after the Ngok Tavak exploratory mission, the Kham Duc recovery team climbed to OP2 to sweep it for ordnance. After the three-hour climb to the top of the hill through eleven-foot-tall elephant grass, the team discovered numerous 105mm casings.

Bill Wright found something else--a 100-foot tree with a fork at the very top, a thirty-year-old memory that, like so many other Kham Duc landmarks, sent a shiver through him.

"It was dead, but I recognized it,'' he said. "It was the same tree I'd seen in 1968. I was running on pure nerves. It was a sort of automatic thing. There was a part of me that wanted to go back down. It was like a dream. Is this really happening to me? Am I really here?''

The recovery team conducted a ground search in the thick undergrowth. They found one of the bunkers that faced the airstrip. Using it as a mark, Wright led them back to the area where the reoccupation forces couldn't find the third bunker back in 1970.

Wright stumbled through the undergrowth, knowing the bunker was close. Then, he swears, he heard a voice in his head.  "It said, `Here we are,' '' Wright said.

He looked down and saw a small depression. Wright told the team to dig. They found a .50 caliber round. Then a Budweiser Beer can. The anthropologist said the can was manufactured in 1967 or 1968. They began a meter by meter dig.  The next day, the recovery team went to Wright's old observation post, OP1. They knew there were no remains left at OP1, but they also knew they still had missing men, and all were missing from between the OP and the airstrip. But they found nothing, though Wright did come upon another bunker, the one he had been trapped in during the battle.

On July 2, they found a handful of tantalizing clues--a piece of olive drab fatigue material, a chunk of olive drab metal. But no remains of Americans.

At an October 1998 meeting with DPMO in Washington, department analysts told VVA's POW/MIA Committee that the site had been occupied by NVA and ARVN forces at different times following the battle and that the remains probably were moved to another location not far from the excavated site. Future JTF operations at the Kham Duc site will address this possibility.

Back at his home in Oklahoma, Bill Wright remains hopeful, though not content with the results of his journey.

"I'm not satisfied with the way it went because we found no remains at Kham Duc,'' Wright said. "Hopefully, in the future, they will. So the search goes on. If JTF would want me to go back, if there was a reason to go back, I'd do it. But just to go back to Vietnam, no. There's nothing in that country I wanted to see. A lot of guys go back to see where they were, but I couldn't care less. It wasn't a nostalgia thing for me. It was a quest. I was going back to find those guys who were missing. They were my friends. The only place in that country I wanted to see was Kham Duc.''
 

 
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