Monday, August 31, 2020

The Forgotten Battle: Captain Fredrick Spaulding and Firebase Ripcord

On July 23, 1970, in the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam as part of the evacuation of Fire Support Base Ripcord, Frederick G. Gilbert, point man for Delta Company of the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, found himself rushing through the jungle at breakneck speed on a desperate mission to help rescue the trapped members of Alpha Company. His fellow soldiers were under heavy fire from North Vietnamese Army regulars, a situation he likened to “Custer’s Last Stand.”

As Gilbert moved through the thick jungle, he remembered seeing a Hughes OH-6A scout helicopter flying overhead at treetop level that “would leave and then return, firing from the cockpit, throwing hand grenades and smoke [grenades], all while taking an unbelievable amount of fire from the green tracers of the enemies’ .51 [caliber] heavy machine guns.” The fear Gilbert felt when he had been ordered to “walk point” that day, knowing casualties were high in Alpha Company and that his death was probable, was “replaced with a fearless sense of urgency when I saw that OH-6A keeping the trail open, leading the way to A Co.”

Long after the Vietnam War had ended, Gilbert, a retired career army noncommissioned officer from Odenton, Maryland, finally learned the identity of the person responsible for preventing both Alpha and Delta Companies from being annihilated by the enemy that day—Captain Fredrick L. Spaulding of Indianapolis. Spaulding was a career army veteran with service in two other combat areas, Korea and the Dominican Republic, where he had been the point man across the Duarte Bridge into Santo Domingo for the Eighty-Second Airborne’s first battle since World War II. Spaulding had exposed himself to great personal danger as an officer with the Third Brigade, 101st Division (“Screaming Eagles”) during Ripcord’s evacuation, going so far as to hang outside of the helicopter’s cockpit to drop smoke grenades to mark the enemy’s positions. When his supply of grenades was exhausted, he returned fire with shots from his .45-caliber sidearm against a North Vietnamese .51-caliber antiaircraft machine gun.

Spaulding, in coordinating tactical air support for the men on the ground, had to fly in four different unarmed observation helicopters that day due to damage inflicted by enemy antiaircraft and rocket fire. “Captain Spaulding’s courage, extraordinary heroism and battlefield skills were an inspiration to the entire 3rd Brigade during this last major ground battle of U.S. forces in the Vietnam War,” said Benjamin L. Harrison, his commanding officer during the battle. Harrison considered Spaulding to be “one of the most outstanding combat officers” he had come across during his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Spaulding, however, saved his praise for the bravery of the men who fought a battle largely uncovered by the media at the time and often forgotten. “Most men in a company don’t know the men in another company, but at Ripcord, they put their lives on the line to get the others out,” he recalled.

During his twenty-nine-year career in the U.S. Army, Spaulding commanded rifle companies, headquarters companies, and Special Forces A teams. In doing so, he received some of the nation’s highest honors for military service, including the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, and a recommendation for the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. A member of the army’s Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame and Ranger Hall of Fame, in 2014 he and fifteen other Hoosiers were inducted into the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame, whose objective is to highlight the honor brought to Indiana and nation by the sacrifices made by Indiana military veterans and their families. Quite a distinguished record for a man who, at the age of eighteen in June 1958, had journeyed to the federal building in downtown Indianapolis hoping to serve his country only to be deemed “too small” when he tried to volunteer for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Born on April 9, 1940, Spaulding grew up on Indianapolis’s east side in a house on North Kealing Avenue, one of four brothers whose father, in spite of a severely impaired leg, worked as a printer for the Indianapolis Times and had played in small bands on the vaudeville circuit. It was a hardscrabble existence, but his family “never went hungry,” Spaulding recalled. As a child he attended classes at the Minnie Hartmann School Number 78, where he was under instruction of “some of the finest teachers” he ever met. 

Upon leaving for high school, he recalled that one of his favorite teachers gave him advice he always tried to live by: “Be your truest and best self.” Growing up during World War II, he had memories of collecting scrap metal for the war, growing food in Victory Gardens, and watching Gold Star mothers waving flags as uniformed young men marched off to the train station for war. He also remembered seeing his uncle, Ray Allen, a veteran of the war in the Pacific who had been wounded several times, decked out in his U.S. Marine Corps dress blues. “Boy, did he look sharp in that uniform,” Spaulding said.

While his well-off classmates hung out at such drive-in restaurants as Jack and Jill’s or Al Greens, Spaulding had an after-school job as a mechanic making sure the automatic pinsetters functioned smoothly at Brody’s Lanes on Twenty-First Street and Arlington Avenue. After graduating in 1957 from Thomas Carr Howe High School, Spaulding, perhaps still impressed by his uncle’s service with the marines, decided to enlist with that branch of the service. Unfortunately for him, the marine recruiter had apparently filled his quota for the month, and dismissed him from his office with some harsh words about the skinny, five-foot-six-inch kid (he later grew an additional five inches).

Luckily for Spaulding, he was spotted by a U.S. Army recruiting sergeant, who had just said good-bye to his son, an army Ranger whose uniform sported a Parachutist Badge (“Jump Wings”). Noticing his dejected look, the recruiting sergeant asked Spaulding what was wrong, and the potential recruit explained what had happened with the marines. “He said, ‘How dare he, you look like a fine specimen of manhood to me, step right in here,’” Spaulding remembered him saying. On the walls of the sergeant’s office were posters promoting various army specialties, including the artillery and tanks. Spaulding’s eyes, however, were drawn to a poster emblazoned with the motto “Airborne—Rangers Lead the Way” and showing paratroopers dropping from the sky, with some already on the ground, ready for action with determined looks on their faces and knives jammed into their jump boots. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll bet that’s just as good if not better than the Marines,’” said Spaulding. Hearing that he wanted to become a Ranger, the sergeant good naturedly noted, after looking at him up and down, “Well now, we have our work cut out for us.”

Entering the service in June 1958, Spaulding received his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, with advanced individual training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He picked the right time to join the army, as the noncommissioned officers who guided him were all hardened veterans of World War II and/or the Korean War. “The way they taught you was exactly how they were taught—to stay alive in combat,” he said. “Pounding it into your head, no nonsense.” Spaulding particularly remembered one NCO who had the habit of whacking his (helmeted) trainees on the head and shouting the advice, “Think, think, think,” along with the adage, “Check, check, and re-check,” because Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) would be sure to rear its ugly head during combat. Once he had passed his initial training, Spaulding said that the NCOs he came across on the platoon, company, battalion, and brigade levels were also determined to have their men in top physical condition; anyone who did not measure up, said Spaulding, was quickly transferred to less-demanding units. “They weren’t mean, but they were hard, they made you a better person—a better soldier,” Spaulding said of the NCOs. “That was their job and they did it very well.”

Conditions were tough for those who wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. When Spaulding attended jump school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he had 1,258 members in his class—he was one of only two hundred who successfully graduated. Being a Ranger meant being in a “whole different world,” he said. When his unit was called upon for a mission, it often meant that “practically everybody else in the system has tried it, and they can’t get through, they can’t accomplish it, so they call you.” Spaulding spent nine years as an enlisted man, including service in Vietnam as an adviser with the Forty-Second Army of the Republic of Vietnam Ranger Parachute Battalion for three operations in 1962, and seemed to be well on the way to achieving his goal of being the youngest sergeant major in the U.S. Army. One of his company commanders, however, noticing his dedication to his job, urged him to attend night school so he could earn a degree and go through officer candidate school; he did so, obtaining a degree in just a few months thanks to help from a sympathetic professor who recognized his abilities, helped him obtain credits for his work in previous military schools, and therefore tested him out.

After graduating from OCS in 1967, Spaulding led five rifle companies through combat in the Vietnam War, an assignment he esteemed above all others. “The toughest job in the world is being a rifle company commander in combat, but that’s also the best job in the world,” he said, adding he was responsible for approximately 176 men and more than $2 million worth of equipment, all for monthly pay totaling $550. Spaulding kept extending his tours of duty in Vietnam for a conflict that had sparked growing demonstrations on college campuses and cities across the United States. “There were several of us that . . . considered ourselves professional soldiers and we didn’t exactly like the way the troops were getting the short end of the stick,” he noted. “The majority of them [draftee soldiers] didn’t want to be there anyway. But we figured if we could stay and, in some way, make a difference by keeping these kids alive, then we’ll just keep staying.”

Spaulding saw his main goal as making sure a mission had been accomplished with the least amount of casualties. “It doesn’t get any easier picking up some young fuzzy faced kid who hasn’t learned to shave yet and putting him in a body bag,” he said. Consequently, Spaulding was particularly demanding with the medics under his command, exhorting them, “Try your best not to let anyone die.” While under fire Spaulding always led by example, noting that once his men saw that he was not afraid to “get in there and mix it up,” they would follow him anywhere. He had some close calls, with bullets hitting his canteen and glancing off his helmet on more than one occasion. Once, a ricochet hit him in the chest and knocked him down. Five or six of his men sprang to their feet to check on his condition. “I knew then that this was my company,” he said.

Spaulding needed all the lessons he had learned in combat to survive the last great American offensive operation of the Vietnam War. By 1970 the administration of President Richard Nixon had embarked on a policy of Vietnamization, whereby U.S. combat troop levels would be reduced and Army of the Republic of Vietnam units would be called upon to step up operations against enemy forces. “There are 176 men authorized in a rifle company,” Spaulding noted. “By 1970 we might have had 95 to 100. We were already almost at 50 percent strength. By March, we were operating with roughly 75 to 95 men in a rifle company.”

Those reduced American companies, along with their South Vietnamese allies, were thrown into combat in the A Shau Valley as part of Operation Texas Star, a campaign that had as its goal the destruction of North Vietnamese supply bases scattered throughout the region. A previously abandoned U.S. Marine Corps firebase, Ripcord, was to be rebuilt near the top of a 2,800-foot-high mountain. The remote base ensconced in the thick jungle could only be resupplied by helicopters. About the size of four football fields, the firebase included a battery of six 105-mm howitzers, a battery of six 155-mm howitzers, two 90-mm recoilless rifles, three platoons of 81-mm mortars, a battalion headquarters, a medical aid station, a platoon of engineers, and three helicopter landing pads.

The army operation, which began on March 12, was conducted without the usual watchful eyes of the U.S. media. Colonel Harrison, who commanded the Third Brigade, 101st Division, the last full American division in Vietnam, noted that a lesson had been learned from what had happened at Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill): “taking heavy casualties and providing that unpleasant news, especially at this time of the war wind-down, to the American public, brought down sharp criticism and scrutiny on the already unfortunate unit.” In addition, during the time of Operation Texas Star, the media’s attention had been focused on the invasion of Cambodia. Harrison pointed out that even army combat photographers and reporters were barred from Ripcord. Some enterprising army reporters did sneak aboard a helicopter and flew into the 101st’s area of operation, he said, but they were soon discovered and ordered out. “This was indeed extraordinary censorship in a here-to-fore uncensored war,” Harrison said.

According to Harrison, the area of operation for the men of the 101st was “thick, hot steaming in the day, cold and wet at night, triple canopy, insect filled jungle with an occasional view of backbreaking hills to climb.” From the start of the battle until Ripcord had to be abandoned on July 23, 1970, Spaulding estimated that, if all of the units supporting Ripcord were counted, more than 800 Americans had been killed during the operation, during which they were besieged by approximately 25,000 NVA soldiers. “I don’t know of anyone who came off that hill who wasn’t wounded,” Spaulding recalled, noting that enemy mortar shells fell on the base “like raindrops.” Among those who gave their lives were Wieland Norris, the brother of actor Chuck Norris, and Lieutenant Bob Kalsu, a former football player with the Buffalo Bills, the only active professional athlete who died in the war.

“July was terrible,” remembered Specialist Fourth Class Daniel Thompson, a wireman at Ripcord. The enemy constantly barraged the firebase with mortar and rocket fire. “Day after day, night after night. I was getting shell shocked. I didn’t care if I got out,” said Thompson. “At night you could hear the [enemy] yelling from the jungles all around, ‘GI die tonight! GI die tonight!’ This was our deathbed. We thought we were going to be overrun.” On July 22 Brigadier General Sidney B. Berry, the acting division commander, informed Harrison of his decision to close Ripcord and evacuate American personnel—a decision Berry made based on what he believed “to be a costly, unjustifiable continuation of human casualties for no corresponding military advantage.”

Then a captain, Spaulding coordinated all of the air support covering the withdrawal from Ripcord on a mission that encouraged those still fighting, as one soldier remembered, that they “might actually get off the firebase, alive. And it motivated us to fight all the harder for that eventuality.” On the morning of July 23, Spaulding left Camp Evans, the tactical operations center, for Ripcord, about a twelve-minute flight, flying in an unarmed OH-6A scout helicopter with his pilot. They were on hand to offer support for the retrieval of Alpha Company, which had been engaged in desperate hand-to-hand fighting against the enemy. One of the members of the unit remembered waking up that morning to be confronted by the face of the enemy soldier he had killed the previous day. The scene as he flew toward the firebase seared itself onto Spaulding’s mind. He remembered:


The China Sea is behind us, the sun’s coming up and it’s black out in front of you, but as the sun is coming up it’s hitting the top of the mountains and it was really   beautiful. You’re somewhat in awe when you’re looking at that. At that point, the radios start popping, all the different outfits are calling and telling me they’re on their way. I looked south and it was the most awesome sight you ever saw. It looked like thousands of helicopters with the sun reflecting off the plexiglass. . . . As far as I can see are these helicopters coming, with their radios popping. I thought, ‘My God, what an awesome sight. And, I’m part of it.’ It made you proud to be an American. Everyone in all those choppers, they were all there for the same reason, to get those guys out.

Flying at treetop level, Spaulding’s aircraft was exposed to intense machine-gun, small-arms, and rocket fire, which crippled the helicopter. Spaulding’s pilot managed to maneuver the aircraft back to Camp Evans, where, upon landing, the helicopter’s tail assembly collapsed. Spaulding procured another OH-6A and returned to the fray.

On his second mission Spaulding saw an enemy soldier fire a rocket-propelled grenade at his helicopter, and barely managed to scream out a warning to his pilot, Warrant Officer Steven M. Wandland, who maneuvered so that the rocket only creased the aircraft’s underside, careening off and exploding against a nearby hillside, peppering Wandland with debris. “I was so scared,” Spaulding remembered, “it felt as though somebody had slammed me in the chest with a sledgehammer. I could barely catch my breath. That bird [helicopter] should not have flown—we saw the crease and realized the stabilizer bar was barely hanging on when we shut down on the brigade pad—but we managed to make it back to Camp Evans.”

Once again, Spaulding took to the air, climbing into a third helicopter for a return to Ripcord with Wandland to mark enemy targets, coordinate artillery fire and air support, and direct the movement of American forces. “I expected their LOH [light observation helicopter] to be shot down at any moment,” recalled First Lieutenant Blair Case, observing the action from a command-and-control chopper. “It seems like a miracle that they survived.” Small-arms and machine-gun fire peppered Spaulding’s craft, with each hit moving the helicopter up and down five or six inches. “All the warning lights started flashing, and we lost hydraulics,” he said. “Wandland had to fly sideways all the way back to the brigade pad. He shut it down and we frantically unstrapped our seat belts and unplugged our radio helmets, and ran like hell to get away from the thing in case it exploded.” Instead of exploding, the helicopter wobbled and shook so much that its tail boom separated from the main body.

For a fourth, and final time, Spaulding returned to action, again taking fire from the North Vietnamese. The mission was a success, with Spaulding noting: “We got everyone out. No one was left behind.” Harrison marveled at his officer’s selfless and heroic efforts that day. “Six OH-6A Scout helicopters were destroyed or damaged by enemy fire during the entire four month Battle of Ripcord; four of the six were commanded by Captain Spaulding on that single day, July 23, 1970,” Harrison reported.

With American forces safely evacuated, Spaulding turned his attention to directing fighter aircraft attack runs against the enemy. In addition, B-52 bombers plastered the area. Writing about the battle years later, Harrison, who interviewed NVA officers involved in the battle during a trip to Vietnam, estimated that in the approximately four months of fighting at Ripcord the enemy had, at a minimum, 2,400 soldiers killed in action, as well as several thousand more wounded. Spaulding, who revisited Vietnam with Harrison and had also spoken to NVA staff officers about what had happened in the A Shau Valley, believed that anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the bombings after the firebase had been evacuated. Harrison estimated that the heavy losses suffered by the North Vietnamese at Ripcord delayed their army’s offensive operations for a full two years (until the Easter Offensive in 1972). “That is what I call a tactical and strategic victory for the 3rd Brigade, for the 101st Airborne Division and for the US Army!” he wrote.

Spaulding, who retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1987, takes great satisfaction with his belief that the soldiers he served with during his military career “were some of the finest young men this country ever produced.” Although for his service he received five of the six top military honors that could be awarded, he noted that a medal was “just a pretty colored ribbon they give you that fades with age.” The greatest accolade a soldier could receive came from those he served with, and those tributes were worth “ten times more than any medal because from them it is heartfelt and they don’t fade with age.”

In addition, Spaulding is often touched when, at military reunions, he is approached by someone he cannot ever remember meeting, men who will come up to him with their wife and children and want to introduce him to them. “And they introduce you as ‘this is Colonel Spaulding, this is the guy that got us out,’” he said. “Makes you feel 10-feet tall.”