The Men With Painted Faces
Profilers: Basil Ballard, David Laughton
Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols – LRRPS
Interviewer: What were the LRRPs? And what did they do?
Well the letters stand for Long Range Reconnaissance patrols. And it’s a form of reconnaissance where you work in small teams of five or six people, sometimes with what was called in the 1st Cavalry Division a “kit Carson scout”, which was a North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldier who had defected and they acted as scouts for us sometimes on the teams. You were taken, usually by helicopter, several miles or kilometers behind the enemy lines in the jungle, in an area that was generally known to be active with enemy. And you were dropped off there and you would patrol that area for three to five days depending on what the mission was. You carried all your supplies with you because you couldn’t be resupplied. And you wore camouflage uniforms and you painted your face camouflage. As a matter of fact that was what the North Vietnamese, what the enemy, called us – “the men with painted faces”. And sometimes you’d see a notice warning their people “beware of the men with painted faces”. And actually we were so effective that the North Vietnamese had a standing bounty of 75,000 piasters for anyone who could capture a LRRP.
Interviewer: How was being in the LRRPS different than being in the regular infantry?
Right…as I mentioned before [in the infantry] you never saw the enemy unless they wanted you to or unless you might encounter them on a small patrol. In the LRRPs we saw them all the time and they never even knew we were there. It was really funny – ya know they’d just go walking right by and later on after they were gone you’d just [call on your radio] and say “we just had six guys go by and they’ve got a machine gun and seem to be carrying mortar rounds and this kind of thing”. There were a couple of cases where teams – you’d sit there and there’s a whole enemy battalion that walks by. We spotted some really large units and the enemy just had no idea we were there. You had to be very quiet, very stealthy. After the LRRP units were all converted to Ranger units, which was in February of 1969, they formed the 75th Ranger Regiment at that time. So I’m one of the founding members of the 75th Ranger Regiment. I’m very proud of that. [Anyway] when they converted to the 75th they wanted us to take a more aggressive attitude towards the enemy. Until then the main emphasis was totally on reconnaissance. They’d have rather had you just watch the enemy, follow them, report like that. But when we became Rangers they wanted us to start doing more ambushes, planting mines and things like that. I think the last person I shot in the LRRPS [was after we became the 75th Ranger Regiment]. There was this little tiny trail and we’d set these small anti-personnel mines on it. Early in the morning here come three VC, I assume.
Interviewer: Were they armed?
Oh yeah! All three of them were armed. The first one stepped on one of the mines and it blew part of his foot off, he stumbled forward hit another one, then stumbled forward and hit another one; he was really hurting and he was lying there. The second guy came up and started trying to help him; and I shot him with a “grease gun”, M3 Submachine gun. Actually that was probably the closest person I ever shot. He was probably no more than twelve feet away. And the third guy just totally panicked just started spraying the area and running away. And that was kind of the effect that we had on them. For once it was them who could be hit from nowhere, who never knew where we were, never knew when they were going to be hit. There was a sergeant, who actually was the one who was training us, he was our training sergeant when we came into the company; his name was Barnes. One of the things he was famous for, he used to carry two .45 pistols. He actually climbed into a tree, above a trail. And when some VC came through he jumped on them, out of the tree, and pistol whipped them into surrender [laughs].
Killing Men in Combat
Interviewer: How did you feel about killing men in combat?
But I look up and there across the river is this guy, North Vietnamese uniform – with some tables, sitting in sort of like a lunch area I guess. And he’s sitting there on a table with his leg up, just sort of watching the firefight. So, by that time I had the M14 I think, so I managed to ruin his day. [That was] my second. [I have] twelve that I’m sure of – but eighteen would probably be a more accurate figure but those twelve I was actually able to go up to them and take their equipment and get documents off of them and that kind of thing. [The first one] was on a night patrol – we were uh – it was the village in the area I was telling you about where they were going into the mountains and hiding and coming down to visit their gals. Well we ran into a couple of their people; it was a brief firefight. And one of their guys was crawling and I had the M14. So I shot him with it; and he was prone and he just came up off the ground about a foot. WHAM…and after that he didn’t move. And later when we went out to search for documents, I took his feet and tried to roll him over and everything from his waist down turned and everything else stayed put. I had literally cut him in half. That was the first man I ever shot. It’s interesting, I’d say that no one who’s ever killed anyone in combat that I met – at that time wasn’t happy about it and [they] wanted to do it again. It’s after the fighting is over; that’s when you think “well gee that poor guy” or “ya know what’s it all about” or the people we lost because a lot of the time during the fight you don’t really know who’s missing until it’s over. The only person that I ever had any personal – felt bad about – let me put it that way. We were on a LRRP mission and we were doing what was called a walk off and that is we’d come into this area where GIs had a camp. They [the GIs] left but we stayed behind. The NVA and VC were always short on supplies so a standard tactic for them was to come in and check out any area the GIs had been in because they could get extra rations or sometimes even ammunition and stuff that had been left. Well we were behind this little blind of trees and this fellow started walking right towards us. And he was picking up things and then he looked up and looked right at us and then he sort of goes [shakes his head] nah. And then he did it again – he got a little closer and [shakes his head] nah. And then the third time he saw us there and we were all trained right on him and he realized what was going to happen, and that he really did see something and that he knew he was going to die. And you saw this expression come over his face [makes a horrified face]. And I’ve always felt bad about that because his last moments on earth were just filled with terror and I’d rather he not died like that, you know dying in just stark terror. If he had been shooting back and forth and he had just caught a bullet – that would have been one thing. But I know he was horrified. I could see the look on his face. And…I was really sad about that.
Perceptions of the Enemy
Interviewer: Was your experience of the North Vietnamese that they wouldn’t leave their comrades behind or did you find them to be cowardly?
I don’t think anybody that ever fought in the North Vietnamese Army could ever been called cowardly. They were extremely brave, and very effective; these were good fighters. Now there was a difference, I’m definitely making a distinction between them and the Vietcong. The Vietcong if they ran into something would try to break contact nine times out of ten. The only time they wouldn’t was if they were holding a really strongly fortified position. But on a meeting engagement or on a patrol their first instinct was usually to get out of the way. But the North Vietnamese, I’ll tell you a little story. This North Vietnamese unit ambushed a convoy and they were out on the road sacking the trucks, gathering what they could. And this tank came along, this escort tank, turned around a corner and here these guys were caught flat-footed. Well this one guy came out, ran forward, kneeled down and just started firing at the tank with his rifle to draw their attention while everybody else scattered. And the tank got closer and closer, and the gunner was sitting in the hatch but the guy wasn’t really firing at him, just at the body of the tank. And the tank was coming closer and closer and [the man with the rifle] just sort of laughed. The guy never moved and the tank ran right over him. But he gave his buddies a chance to get away.
Interviewer: So you found them to be a worthy opponent?
Yes…they were excellent. Courage was never something they didn’t have. And they knew how to use their weapons. However, their level of marksmanship didn’t match ours. I imagine maybe they didn’t get as much range time or whatever. But also they tended to prefer to fire on automatic rather than to aim and shoot. Like in the situation I told you about [where Jimmy Nailen was killed] Jimmy Nailen and the pointman were the only two guys that were killed. They were the only two that were hit I think – but certainly the only two that were killed. And the enemy had forty people lined up and they all opened up on automatic and only hit two guys.
Race Relations in a Combat Unit
Interviewer: What was your experience with racism in the Army during the war?
I had the most incredible luck that way, while I was actually with my unit, during my first tour nothing happened. I left for two weeks. I went on “R&R”. While I was gone, they in this horrendous firefight and a fellow in my squad was killed. And when I came back we never had anybody else hurt again while I was there, never even wounded or scratched. It was almost eerie luck. He is actually one of the guys who came over with me. His name was Jimmy Nailen, from Talladega, Alabama, I believe – southern kid. And we had some really interesting conversations because for a lot of people in the military they hadn’t really had any interaction with people of another race. I remember a kid saying in basic one time that until then he’d never eaten at the same table as a black person. And in the infantry units especially there was a large proportion of Latino and Black people so everybody got to know each other a lot better. And we’d talk about the way things were in his hometown in Alabama and things like that. He was a southern man of his generation and his area, you know the way things were in his home. But he was also an honest kid, a nice kid. His best friend turned out to be a black kid from Texas named Jim Branch and they used to joke about being brothers, and you know they really were. And the way he died, the company was walking, this is the story I was told when I got back; they were a line of ducks through these rice paddies, which we often were, and they came to this village which had a tree line surrounding it and there were 40 NVA lined up around this tree line. They opened fire and they hit this kid, another black kid who was a replacement, he wasn’t actually hit but the bullet had grazed him and he panicked and fell on the ground screaming that he was hit. Well Jim Nailen ran out there, grabbed him, threw him over his shoulder, ran back to a rice paddy dyke, threw him over the other side, and then took a bullet right in the head. He died saving this kid’s life. When people used to complain to me about “white people are no good, or this kind of thing”, I had to tell them this story. That here was a guy who as a southerner, he didn’t – I remember him telling me that when black people came to his house they went to the back door and when he went to visit a black person he went to the back door. And then here he is, a man brought up in an environment like that, and he gives his life saving a black man’s life. We were all soldiers rather than having any racial consciousness. But that story is always one I think of when I hear somebody giving out with a racist line.
Interviewer: Were you ever given orders that your conscience didn’t allow you to obey?
Well in this one particular situation [in the infantry] this company commander took over because our commanding officer was just a Lieutenant. And I’m listening on the radio, I was the squad leader so I liked to keep the radio with me in case anything went wrong. And I hear the company commander say “ok…there’s going to be a whistle and we’re going to fix bayonets and we’re going to charge”. And I couldn’t believe this! So I said to my squad “OK listen when this whistle blows and they make this charge. DO NOT MOVE. I’m giving you a direct order. If anything comes down about this and anybody gets court-martialed it’s not on you guys, it’s on me, cause I’m telling you do not move.” And the whistle went and you heard the screaming of the charge and then you heard the machine guns open up and the you heard people yelling “medic, medic”. They just got cut to pieces. You don’t charge dug in machine guns, that went out in the trenches in 1918. But that’s what this guy wanted to do. There was a kid who had been assigned to my squad for the day. I knew him but I hadn’t had a chance to work with him or anything, he wasn’t really one of my men but he was stuck in my squad for some reason. He had gone on the charge and he died. From what I heard he went out with a little class. He was lying there and he realized he had been hit and he looked up, smiled at his buddies, and waved bye-bye and died. The kid’s name was Smith, they called him snuffy because he was from some backwoods kind of place. He wasn’t very sophisticated but he was a sweet kid. He was going to marry a Vietnamese girl but he didn’t make it back from that one. That was another time I’m absolutely sure I saved some lives because if I had let them just make that rush some of them would have been cut down, I have no doubt of it. And when you do something like that and disobey orders you have to expect either a court-martial or a medal, well fortunately I got the medal. They wrote me up a nice citation saying my actions were correct and I had helped to save lives. I said on the radio right after all these guys were getting cut down: “Sir this is Sgt. Chambers on the point, my squad is intact. I can slip them to the left form a skirmish line and cover you while you withdraw the wounded.” And that’s what we did.
Volunteering for a Second Tour
Interviewer: Why did you decide to volunteer for a second tour in Vietnam?
Well you know I think it’s more about what we were talking about before, about that feeling of not letting your buddies down. And when I went back, when I volunteered to go back – it’s just I felt I could do more. That I had acquired some skill during “pony teams” and I thought if I could get on a LRRP Team this could serve me well and I could really do something with that. And so that was why I did that. And there was also this feeling of knowing that there were guys still out there fighting the war, and I was so – put off in a way by a lot of the attitudes in the civilian community then. You know, defeatist talk, defeatist ideas, college kids flying the Viet Cong flag and things like that, that I wanted to do something about it. And the only way I could or the way I could, felt like I could really make a difference, was to go back and fight some more.
Perceptions of the Anti-War Movement
Interviewer: Were you bothered by the anti-war movement and public perceptions of the war?
They didn’t know the truth. And I don’t really know what you can say about that. You can tell people, but I guess I’ve always kind had a short fuse. I never really took the time sit down and try to explain things or have a conversation with these people. I just was very angry with them and would have been more confrontational. But fortunately I wasn’t really around people like that very much. The day I got back at the airport, the day I was leaving. I left military service from Vietnam – so they flew me back to the airport in San Francisco and then I had to make my own way home from there. As I came out in uniform there were protestors there. And I was angry about that because I thought of the people who died both on their side and ours, the Vietnamese and ours, and it just uhh – these people had such a good life. They can go to movies, they can sleep safe all night, they don’t have to sleep in the rain, they don’t have to climb hills. And they are disparaging the people who made that possible and that kind of hurt. The Vietnam War is very misunderstood, very often you hear people saying that the Vietcong defeated the Americans. Well the decisions that were made were political, militarily we were not defeated. There was no American Dien Bien Phu, the enemy lost far more people than we did; and if you look at the occupation of Saigon at the end of the war there weren’t a lot of little men in black pajamas walking in, there were North Vietnamese regulars riding in on their Tanks. That’s who defeated the South Vietnamese when we left. They didn’t defeat us.
Interviewer: Is there anything else you want to say about your time in Vietnam?
Nowadays, very often, like today when I was wearing this [US Paratrooper hat] these two fellas who were working on this business said thank you for your service. And that means something to me because they didn’t say it to us then. They were more likely to call you a baby killer or spit at you or throw paint on you or something. But to hear Americans express gratitude for those who serve now and for those of us who served then makes me very proud and very happy. This is the best country in the world. I think that’s why I was and remain a patriot. I learned that from my dad. And I just thank God for being an American and for the American People.