"Rat Pack 16"  10/66-3/67
Miami, FL

Red Bar Line

WARNING!!! This story is distasteful! Unfortunately, it did happen. 


It was early 1967.  We were sitting amidst the broken outer walls of a Buddhist temple ruins close to the Seven Hills area deep in South Vietnam’s Delta region.

Our security was provided by elements of a battalion of “soldiers of fortune” under the advisorship of a young U.S. Special Forces (S.F.) captain. The captain produced two one-gallon pickle jars and invited me to my choice of enemy pickled human ears or fingers.  I was astounded by the offer but remained calm and asked for an explanation. 

A few minutes before, I had dropped off the enlisted elements of his S.F. advisory team at one of the seven hills, near a cave entrance.  Their mission was to explore the cave and see what it contained.  A tall, burly S.F. African-American master sergeant led his team into the cave as I lifted off from the sloped hillside in a UH-D ‘slick’, property of the 281st Assault Helicopter Company headquartered at Nha Trang.

After landing back at the temple site we could hear the team leader as he described, via radio, each turn and twist deep inside the cave.  Also, he reported capturing large quantities of enemy supplies which he described in detail.  I marveled at the clear transmission and the captain explained that their equipment was special, supplied by SOG {Special Operating Group}.  Surprised me again!  I had no idea, as no one had told me, I’d be supporting a SOG mission until I surmised it as events were unfolding.

I was the platoon commander of a ‘slick’ platoon.  The other ‘slick’ platoon in our company was always teamed with the ‘gunship’ platoon.  Their mission—inserting and evacuating the 5th S.F. B-52 Delta Project Force throughout South Vietnam for intelligence gathering purposes. Project Delta was under the operational control of the 5th S.F. Group co-located with my 281st Assault Helicopter Company(AHC) at Nha Trang.  The 281st was also under the direct operational control of 5th S.F..  Administrative control of the 281st AHC rested with the 10th Aviation Battalion at Dong Ba Thin located on the west side of Cam Ranh Bay.

My platoon of ‘slicks’ was split into four detachments. Each detachment was in direct support of S.F. operations in each of the four Corps’ areas, generally flying combat support missions, moving people, equipment and supplies in and out of the far-flung S.F. camps. On occasion we provided emergency aerial supply support when the camps came under attack.

I would visit each detachment, for seven to ten days at a time, by hopping on Air Force or Army fixed-wing aircraft for DaNang, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, Bien Hoa and Soc Trang, some of the main areas from which S.F. operations were conducted.  There were no platoon relief pilots, except myself. So, my main task was to relieve each detachment’s pilots allowing them to take a hard-earned break, sleep in, or R&R locally to get them away from constant 10-12 hour flying, seven days a week.

I had proceeded to Soc Trang to provide relief for my ‘slick’ crews there when I found myself at the Buddhist temple ruins where this story began.

In response to my request for an explanation of the pickled body parts the captain explained {to the best of my recollection} that he was advisor to a special unit put together by SOG {CIA}.  There were three companies of infantry, each commanded and staffed by persons from their same ethnic groups. There was one company each of Cambodians, Montagnard and Chinese Nungs.  These troops were in effect “Soldiers of Fortune” paid to seek out and kill the enemy in their assigned region of operations.  There was a battalion commander and staff organized from the persons recruited. However, the S.F. captain explained that he was the ‘de facto’ commander of the battalion.

The captain further explained that the battalion’s troops were paid extra for DEAD enemies. Since his unit couldn’t carry enemy bodies around on extended hit-and-run field combat operations,in order to confirm body count {REMEMBER! NcNamara’s DOD REQUIREMENT!) they kept either a finger or ear of each enemy killed preserved in the pickle jars until they could be turned in for the extra pay.  His “they do it, so we do it” attitude surprised but did not impress me. But pickled ears and fingers? What happened to the idea of an officer’s word and integrity?                    

During the time of the captain’s explanation there were occasional breaks for radio talk between his team leader in the cave and himself discussing the new findings of enemy supplies within the cave. The captain continued:  The Chinese Nungs had a special religious ceremony over dead enemies after combat action subsided.  They would cut out the heart of the enemy and pray that the enemy spirit would be saved for the after-life.  They would then cook and eat the enemy heart. {I do not recollect the religious significance of this act.}

I asked the captain,”WHY,that if he where, in fact, the ‘de facto’ commander of this battalion, how could he, as an officer, allow such acts to happen?  He responded that the Nungs were performing a RELIGIOUS ceremony.  To the Nungs it was nothing more than that.  A centuries-old religious act.  He claimed that had he or any of his American advisors interfered with the Nungs’ religious customs the Nungs would likely kill him and his advisors and he could not permit that possibility to happen.

When the operation inside the cave at the Seven Hills had subsided the captain asked me to retrieve his team. I flew the team back to the Buddhist temple from the cave site and returned to Soc Trang.  Though I never saw the captain again I heard several years later that he had received two fast {5%} promotions since our temple meeting.

Why have I written this story?  I confess that over the years I have suffered some guilt for not reporting the incident acknowledging that it probably wouldn’t have gone very far with the pressure from Secretary McNamara’s bodycount policy. Had this incident been reported the press would have undoubtedly looked for scalps, as they did in Lieutenant Calley’s My Lai incident.  Thankfully, several persons did report the Calley event, among them a courageous helicopter flight crew.

Should I have been so bold!