Celebrating One Who Made it Home
Jimmy D Gray and I have been trying to find each other for over forty years. One day while surfing the Internet, he sees a random post on an obscure website, “Looking for Jimmy D Gray, November Company, 75th Rangers, LZ English. Call me brother.” He immediately answers, but by then I’ve moved on. Eventually, I circle back to the website and check my old post. I am stunned to see his reply that places us within five years of each other.
I finally have his email address. Then his phone number. The first late night phone call follows and ends with a promise to get together face-to-face at the first opportunity. We’re a year apart.
A business trip to California gives me reason to make another call and suddenly, we’re five hours apart. We settle on somewhere in the middle, the little town of Santa Clarita as our meeting place, at the local El Torito Mexican Restaurant.
In the parking lot, we walk exuberantly toward each other and embrace—a long backslapping hug before walking into the restaurant. I can’t believe I’m sitting across from him—looking into the eyes of Jimmy D Gray. He shouldn’t be here. He should have died exactly forty-five years ago. Instead, he’s sitting across the table from me in a booth with old naugahyde seats, faux Mexican wall tile and a bowl of crummy salsa on the table between us. He is smiling. A lot of life has passed between us. We don’t know each other now, so we start with what we do know. We know we are brothers, our kinship forged in the fires of war.
In 1969, we were both teenagers—he was from California and I was from Colorado. We met at Fort Gordon, Georgia and went through advanced infantry training together. After AIT we graduated from jump school at Fort Benning, earning our Airborne wings. We arrived in Vietnam and volunteered for the November Rangers at LZ English, which became our home firebase. We ran long range reconnaissance missions—we were called LRRPs for short. Jimmy D goes to Bravo team and I’m assigned to Charlie team, but we have each other’s backs. Every time we come in from a mission for a day to rest, resupply and reload, we check on each other’s well being. Just as I was doing that day it all came down for Jimmy D.
Sitting in the Technical Operations Bunker (TOC) at LZ English, I was listening to one of several radios on the counter—one for each team in the field. Bravo team’s radio crackled urgently and Jimmy D’s voice screams through the receiver, “I’m hit! I’m hit!” His voice is full of pain and shock. My blood runs cold. Lord not Jim, I pray.
“Can I get you something to drink?” the waiter asks, pad in hand. Jimmy D and I both order an iced tea, even though we once promised each other a beer if we were to ever make it out of Vietnam alive.
We remain silent until the waiter comes back. We don’t want to be interrupted again. Jimmy D orders a plate of enchiladas and rice—he’s a vegetarian. I order the same. I’m a carnivore but tonight I don’t care what I eat. I just want the waiter to go away. He does, and when he returns and sets the hot plates before us, I barely notice. I’m listening to Jimmy’s account of what happened that day, and how things went so wrong for Bravo team.
“Stupid rule!” Jim yells to Jag, over the whining engine and pounding noise of the chopper blades. They are in day two of their mission and have engaged the NVA in a firefight that has left several enemy soldiers dead. Rule Number One states that when a five-man Ranger team makes contact with an enemy of larger force, they are extracted. Rule Number Two states that if contact is made within two days of initial insertion, the team is extracted—then immediately re-inserted in the same Area of Operation (AO), a short distance away. It makes as much sense as knocking down a hornet’s nest and sprinting like hell to escape the fury, only to turn around and check out the nest again—just to see how they’re all doing.
Bravo team has only been in the air for five minutes when the chopper banks left. The terrain below changes rapidly, and moments later the Huey skirts a mountainside and descends toward the grassy plateau. The crew chief turns around and signals Jimmy D—this is his sixth mission as Bravo team leader, and every man on the team has volunteered to follow him into battle. He waves back and moves toward the open door of the chopper. The RTO and the rest of the team rise to kneeling positions to wait their turn as Jim and Jag climb out onto opposite skids, holding tightly onto the door frames while the wind pounds their bodies, threatening to push them off their narrow footholds. The door gunners level their M60’s and watch for movement in the tree line as the pilot steers the ship toward the approaching landing zone. He brings the chopper in low, fast and straight. They scan the area for signs of punji pits. The helicopter draws within six feet of the ground and the pilot pulls the ship into an abrupt hover for insertion. A minute later the entire team is down, and Gray leads them toward the protection of the trees. Insertion is successful—no contact —and as far as anyone knows—no detection. Bravo moves quickly away from the landing zone and enters the jungle.
The soft ground gives slightly under their feet as they move cautiously between the tall trees, scrutinizing the undergrowth for hidden trip wires. The RTO follows a few yards behind, whispering into the handset.
“Tango, Oscar, Charlie this is Bravo. Commo check, over.” Gray stops and watches the RTO for a response.
“Bravo, this is TOC, you’re loud and clear. How you readin’ us? Over.”
“Tango, Oscar, Charlie. This is Bravo. Same-same. Bravo out.” The RTO clips the handset to his shoulder strap and they move on. Reaching the edge of the mountaintop, Jim warns the team with hand signals that the way ahead is steep, then moves out and disappears over the side. One by one, they slip carefully and quietly over the edge in single file down the mountainside—half-sliding on their feet, half-scooting on their butts—careful not to dislodge rocks.
Ten hours later, they reach the valley floor at the base of the steep mountainside. They take a break, leaning back on their ruck sacks. Within minutes, a team of five NVA walk past them on a trail just yards from where they are sitting. The RTO calls in the sighting. As daylight fades, Bravo sets up their night lager and soon realizes that the radio is silent—they’ve lost communication with TOC. Because of the mountainous terrain, they are cut off and will have to wait until morning when the scout plane flies back into the area to establish radio contact. They bed down—each man lying on his own little piece of ground, listening to the stirrings of the forest. Hours later, they hear voices—close by, speaking Vietnamese. The enemy is near.
As dawn begins to push back the darkness, Bravo watches a trail come into view, just across the river. Suddenly, a squad of NVA appears, following the trail into a base camp just two hundred yards from Bravo’s position. The team quietly gathers in their claymore mines and returns to the base of the mountain for a better vantage point, knowing that there is no going back up the steep slope. Jim doesn’t like the feel of it. The terrain has them at a disadvantage if they make contact—the mountain is at their back, the base camp is before them, and the river is in between. Off to their left is a washed out gully. If things go wrong, they are trapped. They conceal themselves and watch the base camp, quietly reporting the enemy activity to headquarters through the scout plane. Sixty to seventy North Vietnamese soldiers come and go throughout the day—cooking, laughing, talking and unaware that every movement they make is being watched.
A voice on the radio hisses, “Bravo, this is TOC, over”
“TOC, this is Bravo go, over.”
“Bravo, this is Charlie Oscar. I want to conduct a raid on that base camp, I am sending in a twelve-man team to support you. Over.”
“How’s that? Over.”
“Once they arrive, they will work their way down the mountainside, I want your team to cross the river and flush out the NVA. The support team will be set up on the trail and ambush them as they run out of the base camp. Do you copy, over?”
Gray protests to the commanding officer, “ Sir, I don’t think that will work. We‘ll be exposed when we cross the river—and the water will slow us down—we’ll get cut down before we make it to the base camp. Why don’t you send in the gunships and light up the camp with the mini-guns and rockets? Over.”
“Negative. I want this to be a Ranger raid. Wait for Hotel team to contact you once they’re in the area. TOC out!”
Jim hands the radio handset back to the RTO and goes over the orders with the men. They wait while the Hueys and their support Cobras lift off the helipad at LZ English and head in their direction. Meanwhile, the base camp is buzzing with activity.
Thirty minutes pass and Bravo gets word that the twelve man LRRP team has been inserted nearby. Suddenly, a team of NVA appear, walking up the gully at a fast pace, carrying AK47’s and no ruck sacks. They must have been alerted about the insertion. They’re going to check it out! Jim observes. They raise their rifles and sight in the enemy soldiers.
“Tango, Oscar, Charlie, this is Bravo, we have November Alpha Charlie’s coming our way. I think they’re headed toward Hotel’s LZ, over.”
“Bravo, roger that. Do NOT engage until Hotel team arrives. Do you copy? Over.”
“We copy,” Gray whispers, “but I don’t know if we can wait to engage. Will hold off as long as possible. Over.”
“Roger that. Bravo out.”
Jim, Jag and the RTO look down the barrel of their rifles—each singling out an enemy soldier in their gunsights while the other two team members cover the rear. The enemy squad passes directly in front of them, just twenty feet from their position. Bravo holds its fire. The NVA soldier that Jag is following through his sights suddenly turns his head, and their eyes lock. He raises his AK to fire. Jag jerks back on the trigger, drilling the NVA soldier with a single round to the forehead. The sliding carriage bolt slams against the empty brass casing as it ejects and immediately jams the weapon. Jag fights with the M16, trying to free the lodged shell.
“C’mon you no good…”
The gully explodes in gunfire. A hand grenade bounces into the trees a few yards from Jag. He starts to roll away, and it explodes. The blast rocks the ground and disintegrates the surrounding vegetation with a scythe-like halo of shrapnel. He lies motionless, bleeding profusely from the head. A second explosion knocks Jim Gray from his feet, sending him sprawling across the jungle floor. He lands face down. His side is on fire. His senses are reeling like a drunken man. He hears distant gunfire—thirty feet away. Spotting his rifle in the nearby undergrowth, he tries to crawl. He can’t lift his head so he pushes himself forward with his head scraping along the jungle floor. He stretches out his arm, reaching for his M16 when another explosion rocks him and throws him back against a tree. He pulls himself up into a sitting position. He is defenseless without a weapon. Jim looks down at his torn shirt and sees a trickle of blood on his chest. Oh, that’s not too bad, he thinks. His eyes drift over and he sees an open laceration. He sees the fat inside his muscle. He sees his rib within his chest. He looks away, trying not to go into shock. Then he spots the radio handset in the leaves, lying next to the wounded RTO.
“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Jim screams into the receiver.
“Bravo! This is TOC, what’s happening?!” Top pleads. I am standing next to him listening for the reply. The seconds last forever. Finally, Jim’s voice crackles across the airwaves, only now his breathing is heavy, his words forced.
“I’m sorry…sorry…this is Gray, Bravo team leader.…we’re in contact….we’ve been hit. RTO and Jag are down…need reinforcements….they’re all over us…send gunships…receiving fire from base camp!”
Top reassures Jim, and alerts Hotel team on another radio. But Tom Echoff and his team were already in a fast descent, sliding down the steep grade towards the sound of gunfire.
“OK, Jim, hang on! Casper’s coming to get you. We’re sending reinforcements. Hang on son….I’m sending gunships and a Medivac.”
“…held fire as long as we could…sorry…” Jim moans deliriously, trying to stay conscious. “…my side…we got fragged…” Gunfire from the base camp abruptly drowns out his voice, cutting him off in mid-sentence, leaving only the hiss of white noise. Top drops the hand-held microphone onto the desk and bolts out the door in a dead run. He bursts into the first hooch.
“Charlie team! Move out now! Ammo only! Bravo’s going down!” He sprints through the hooch, leaps from the steps, runs across the dirt and jumps into the second hooch. “Golf team! Move out! Ammo only! Bravo’s hit bad!! They got a hundred gooks on ’em!”
Rangers from every direction sprint at full speed toward the chopper pad with boots unlaced and T-shirts, rifles and bandoleers in hand. They hit the pad ninety seconds later and jump into the waiting birds. One after another, the helicopters lift off, ignoring adequate warm-up time. The ships strain for airspeed, noses down and lean into the direction of flight. The dustoff ship follows behind. The Cobra gunships streak past the Medivac, racing to the firefight. Aboard the Hueys, nervous Rangers lace their boots, tuck in their shirts, load their weapons and hang frags on every available strap.
Jim is bleeding heavily, fighting to remain conscious. The bandage feels strange as Fleegle wraps the soft cloth around and around his head, restricting the flow of warm blood running down his neck.
“I can’t stop the bleeding!” Les hollers to his teammates. That’s not a very nice thing to say in front of me, Jim thinks to himself, I’m trying to stay out of shock here, man.
The choppers arrive in force. Hotel team secures the area, preventing the NVA from finishing off Bravo. The Medivac touches down near Hotel team’s yellow smoke signal while the Cobra pilots spot the pallid cloud and fly into action, raking the base camp with mini-guns and rockets. After ten minutes, the only thing that remains is the smell of gunpowder, bloody foliage, broken branches and twenty-five dead NVA. The Medivac lifts off and races full throttle towards the MASH unit while the Cobras return to LZ English—their ammunition spent and their rocket pods empty.
Jim Gray and Jag Wallace end up in Japan—their wounds critical. Jim undergoes several life-saving surgeries and spends the next five months recovering from his wounds. He rebuilds his life and becomes a successful businessman, making millions in toy manufacturing—a stomp-on, water powered rocket is his most popular toy.
We’re eating tasteless enchiladas in a good restaurant chain gone bad, talking about a war gone bad. We are very different now, Jim and I. We’ve taken different paths through life. We have different ideas, religious beliefs and politics, yet we have an unbreakable bond. We celebrate the reality that the other is alive and we find immense joy in that. We share a deep, abiding grief for our friends who didn’t make it out. We are very much alike, Jim and I. We are brothers.
* This blog post is dedicated to my close Ranger friends who didn’t make it home—Ron Holeman, John Knaus, Cameron McAllister, John Kelly, Sgt. Thomas, Duran, Victor Del Greco and Bruce Candrl. I salute all the November Company Rangers who served and those who died, and all the brave Veterans who died serving our country.
** I am still looking for Jag. If anyone has his contact information, please get in touch with me. Thanks!