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I arrived in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, on April 4, 1968, and spent a month or so in useless training in 90th replacement.

After training, I flew north to Camp Eagle where I spent a single night before I choppered to Fire Base Vagel. I spent one hour there and with the rest of the replacements walked into the jungle to meet my company on a hilltop overlooking the Rao-Nho Valley.

Little did I know that walking through some of the most difficult and remote terrain in South Vietnam would be what I did for the next nine months.

The operation was named Navada Eagle, the purpose of which was never communicated to any of us in the field, but consisted of hiking up and down every jungle covered mountain between the South China Sea and the Loatian border all the while looking for an enemy who was as familiar with this landscape as I was with my backyard at home.

In addition, we made so much noise in our pursuit that our location was no secret to anyone. C Company, 1/327Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, was a line company of about 180 men with each of us carrying more fire power and equipment than a whole battalion of our foe.

A typical day involved breaking camp, packing our gear, descending the mountain, humping up the next mountain, checking for signs of enemy, and setting up night perimeter. This task involved setting out trip flares, claymores, assigning guard positions and other such defensive measures. Most importantly for the comfort of the ordinary guy was food and shelter. Shelter being a poncho on the ground and a poncho overhead.

We ate C-rations canned in 1945, and you had to be pretty creative (and hungry) to turn a can of ham and lifers into something edible. Who was more deserving of this gourmet delight than boonie rats? Every five days we’d blast a hole in the jungle and were resupplied by helicopter with all the necessities for life in the jungle – food, clothing, ammo, and most important to the over seas soldier, mail.

We were in the jungle only a few weeks when we discovered something that told me a lot about how determined our enemy really was. In planning our daily treks, we studied topographical maps which were drawn from aerial photographs making the terrain appear more like rolling hills rather than the steep and treacherous mountains and valleys under an eighty foot canopy we actually encountered. This made the lifers back in their air conditioned mobile homes question our maneuverability as they had no concept of what the conditions were like. In spite of my reason for being there, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the magnificence of the jungle with its huge plants, ancient trees, pure water, and until we arrived, unspoiled serenity. On this day we walked into a natural cathedral fashioned by the eighty foot canopy covering a 300 yard diameter clearing and surrounded on three sides by river. In the center of this cathedral, was a large cache of enemy weapons including three light artillery pieces, a crew serviced anti-aircraft gun, hundreds of rifles, mortars, anti-tank weapons and believe it or not – trucks. We never discovered how they got all this equipment there, either by river or over land, however, it took a great deal of effort and determination to accomplish that feat.

The top brass didn’t venture into the jungle often, but they came this time to see for themselves what they considered “their” find. Most of us were sent on patrol during this time so that the lifers wouldn’t have to be disturbed by the appearance of soldiers not looking ready for a parade down main street, but more like General Longstreet’s Confedeerate soldiers in 1863. This was a treat for us to stay in one location for three days as generally we stayed only over night before moving on. I dug the only fox hole in my military career – four feet long and three inches deep. Digging in wasn’t my forte and I felt that learning to be silent and invisible would be better protection. If you’re not a target, you don’t get shot at.

In the middle of our second day at this site, a message came around that a friendly unit would penetrate the perimeter in our sector and to be aware. They came out of the jungle like the name implied, silent, intelligent, cautious, deadly, Tiger Force. Clad in French camouflage fatigues, boonie hats, and berets, carrying sawed off shotguns and AK47s, NVA belt buckle and bandoleers, these men had a look of people who meant business. They camped with us that night and their quiet confidence and obvious field experience drew me like a magnet. I knew at that moment, that if I were going to spend the next nine months in the jungle, I wanted to be with people who knew what they were doing rather than with people who didn’t care what they were doing, thus making them dangerous. In the morning, I discovered that Tiger Force had vanished silently into the jungle while we slept.

After another month or so of endless humping through the jungle we arrived at our objective, the northern face of a mountain overlooking the A Shau Valley. This was a stretch of land 35 miles long and 8 miles wide with the western end open to the Laotian border. The NVA used this valley as a major supply route to funnel weapons and supplies such as we found in the Rao Nho Valley. At certain times during the year, the rains prevented moving Americans into this valley. The enemy used this time and weather to their advantage. Our objective was to protect a corp of engineers who were planting a mine field across the western entrance to the valley off the Ho Chi Min trail from Laos.

On August 1, 1968, we were high on a ridge overlooking the most western end of the A. Shau Valley. Our commander was a big man with a full red beard, Tom Kanan, who had the ability to look at a topographical map and know where the enemy would be. He told us that once past the fortifications around the valley that we wouldn’t run into much enemy activity in the valley itself. He was right. ON several of the high ridges were semi-permanent NVA complexes both above and below ground. It was between two of these fortifications that my squad was ambushed while on patrol. Within two minutes, nine of the eleven men on patrol were wounded. All the enemy had to do to stop the advance of the Americans was to wound a few of them. Everything would grind to a halt and a hole would be cut in the jungle to accommodate the medivac coppers. This gave the NVA time to regroup and better prepare for the advancing Americans. I blamed this type of disaster on too many men making too much noise and not really caring that the enemy was able to hear.

On the morning of August 3rd, we witnessed a B52 strike down the center of the A Shau Valley. From our vantage point ten miles away and high on a ridge, we could not only see but feel the percussion and hear the shrapnel flying through the trees. This was quite an experience. To the west was the Laotian border, to the east was the large open terrain of the valley floor and ahead to the north was a large mountain looking for all the world like every other mountain we’d humped up the past months. The U.S. military name for it was Hill 937, the gook name for it was Dong Ap Bai, and a year later it was named by Ted Kennedy, Hamburger Hill.

The following day, August 4th, choppers filled the skies to the south of us. Large groups of soldiers were being choppered in and the sound of gun fire filled the air. Fortunately, as we had walked to our position, we were largely undetected. I never understood the concept of landing large groups of men in helicopters and expecting to maintain an element of surprise. Orders came around for 1/327 to find out if there was any enemy activity on that hill. D Company led the way followed by C Company in support. Once on the valley floor, our personal security evaporated. For the first time in months, large groups of men were totally exposed – no canopy, no jungle, no place to hide in this enemy stronghold. Finally, we reached the other side and started our ascent. It took us a time to realize how high up we were and then D Company started receiving fire from the top of the hill. We encountered reinforced bunkers, heavy machine gun and mortar fire from what seemed like every direction – way more fire power than we’d encountered to date. The object was to know if there was enemy activity up there – not to take it, so as soon as we knew we left. We returned to our sanctuary on the other side via the valley floor where we called in the Air Force to deal with the mountain stronghold. By the time we returned, the entire battalion was on the valley floor protecting the engineers.

For the next three hours, jets dropped napalm and 250 lb bombs and what seemed like everything but nukes on this hill with anti-aircraft and green tracers being returned by the NVA. Never have I seen such bold action taken by the NVA as I did that day. This boldness extended into the night as we started to receive artillery fire from the same hill and across the border from somewhere in Laos. We knew we couldn’t stay where we were as it was getting dark so we moved. Rarely did Americans move at night, but under the circumstances we had no choice, as they knew where we were and had the fire power to reach us. Fire fights raged all over the valley that night as incamped paratroopers were being probed by NVA.

Because we were on the move, the enemy didn’t quite know how to deal with us and we were left relatively alone except for the artillery fire that chased us. During this move, we walked through the abandoned Green Beret camp which was overrun in 1966. As I walked past the crumbling sand bags and the crushed barbed wire, I couldn’t help but believe that this was sacred ground to both the Americans and the NVA. Exhausted from our night’s march, out of food and ammo, but our mission completed we were extracted the next day from the A Shau Valley.

During the stand down of the following days, I was approached by a few Tigers who were formerly from my company and asked to join them. It was in this elite group that I first met, men who could out-Indian the Indians. This recon team consisted of about 40 well seasoned, hand picked volunteers. Only two insignia’s were found on their uniforms, jump wings and a shoulder scroll with the words Tiger Force – no rank, names or other military propaganda was to be found, but one could always tell who was in charge. One of these individual was Staff Sergeant John.G. Gertsch. This man had a great sense of balance between being your friend and your leader at the same time. Under the command of Lt. Fred Raymond, John Gertsch, Dave Fields, and others, Tiger Force worked with a smoothness and efficiency that even surprised the enemy.

Gertsch, as he was known, was a master in the field, teaching all who were near the ways of the jungle and how to use it to your advantage. How to, in his own words, be there but not really be there. When there was any kind of fighting going on, you could find John diving into it doing what had to be done to get his fellow paratroopers out of danger with no thought for his own safety.

John Gertsch was raised in Pittsburg in the late fifties and sixties. He joined the Army, went to jump school and was assigned to the 1/327 101 Airborne Division and was sent to Vietnam. After several months in the field with a line company, he joined the recon platoon known as Tiger Force. This man was absolutely fearless walking point, a job that I had inherited in my time in a line company. I still had a lot to learn about point so I started walking slack for John. I was right, I had a lot to learn, but I was fortunate to have one of the best teachers there was. Because of what John had taught me and a large amount of Irish good luck I am alive today.

John was ending his third consecutive year in Vietnam when he was chosen to represent the 101st Airborne Division at an annual reunion at Ft. Campbell, KY. John knew Tiger Force was headed back into the notorious A Shau Valley and experience was needed for this dangerous mission. He decided to stay with his unit and help out. As it turned out, that decision was very costly for all of us.

Tiger Force was choppered into the A Shau Valley on July 15, 1969, and two days later they were ambushed. The platoon leader was seriously wounded and lay exposed to intense enemy fire. Forsaking his own safety, and without hesitation Sergeant Gertsch rushed to the aid of his fallen leader and dragged him to a sheltered position. He then assumed command of the heavily engaged platoon and led his men in a fierce counterattack that forced the enemy to withdraw. Later a small element of Sergeant Gertsch’s unit was reconnoitered when attached again by the enemy. John moved forward to his besieged element and immediately charged, firing as he advanced. His determined assault forced the enemy troops to withdraw in confusion and made possible the recovery of two wounded men who had been exposed to heavy enemy fire.

Sometime later his platoon came under attach by an enemy force employing automatic weapons, grenade, and rocket fire. John was severely wounded during the onslaught but continued to command his men. While moving under fire and encouraging his men, he sighted a medic treating a wounded officer from an adjacent unit. Realizing that both men were in imminent danger of being killed, John rushed forward and positioned himself between them and the enemy nearby. While the wounded officer was being moved to safety, John was mortally wounded.

I met John when I had an opportunity to join the battalion recon platoon known as Tiger Force. I was fortunate enough to get into this squad. This man was a master in the field, teaching all that were near the ways of the jungle and how to use it to your advantage. When there was any kind of fighting going on, you could find John diving into it, doing all he could to get his fellow paratroopers out of danger, with no thought for his own safety.

This man was absolutely fearless when he was walking point, a job I inherited in my time in a line company. Being this was one of the most dangerous tasks a man could do, and I was fortunate to have one of the best teachers there was. I am alive today because of what I learned from John.

On June 1, 1969, John was ending his third consecutive year in Vietnam. I was ending my time in hell as well. We planned to meet in San Francisco with some other members of our unit and celebrate, but John didn’t make it.

Tiger Force was going back into the notorious A-Shau Valley and John knew his experience was badly needed. He decided to stay for this dangerous mission. While attempting to save the lives of some of his comrades, John was killed. In all, John Gertch was awarded 3 Army Commendation medals, 2 Silver Stairs, 3 Bronze Stars, 3 Purple Hearts, and for his gallantry on July 19th, John was awarded the nations highest honor, The Congressional Medal of Honor.

It was a great privilege and honor to have served with this true American hero. He was the pinnacle of what it meant to be an airborne soldier. I have missed my friend.

T.J. McGinley
Tiger Force
1/327/101 Abn.Div.
VN – 68-69