This Memorial Day essay is the story of four of the most courageous soldiers America ever sent to war. It is a story I should have written decades ago.
I tried writing their story several times, but never could. I worried then, as I do now, that any words I put on paper would be inadequate to describe who they were and what they did. These four troopers were members of K Company 75th Rangers, LRRPs who went on Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols. Their missions were the most dangerous in the war in Vietnam. Their call sign was Romeo-15. They fought as a team and they acted alone. Deep in enemy territory and far from any base camp, they would seek out, locate and identify enemy units. They remained hidden in the jungle for days estimating the size of the enemy units, counting the number of enemy soldiers and plotting their location.
In the field, they would set up ambushes, engage in hit-and-run actions and attempt to capture enemy soldiers. When it came to special operations, they were masters of the game. It was a game few soldiers were qualified to play. I was one of those unqualified soldiers.
I led a different kind of team. Our mission was not to engage with the enemy, but only to plant sensors, anti-intrusion monitors and audio interception devices in areas where the enemy might be. We would implant strings, plot the coordinates of the sensors, and then get out without getting caught. Later when the sensors were activated, artillery and airstrikes could be called on the enemy intruders.
This was a new way to wage war, and because we were one of the first teams to experiment with these devices, we were novices.
It was safe to implant these sensors just outside our base camps and fire bases for defensive purposes.
However, our primary mission was to implant these sensor strings out in the field.
None of us were Lurps or Rangers. We were just ordinary soldiers who knew about sensors but knew nothing about how to execute clandestine missions in the field. Our stateside training never prepared us for these kinds of patrols.
In order to do our job, we needed the help of experts. K- Company’s barracks were next to ours. When I first approached our neighbors, I was rebuffed. Their missions were classified, and their methods were secret. They were a close-knit fraternity of tough, highly trained volunteers who were suspicious of outsiders. This band of elite soldiers held the highest disdain for base camp soldiers who had never operated in the field. Fittingly, Lt. Ted Trublood, their platoon leader, was a rugged professional big game hunter from Alaska.
Only after they learned what our team was designed to do and that we held the necessary clearances did they cautiously open up. I had met one of their team leaders while he was in Lurp school. His name was Jim Doss. I explained to him who we were and what we had to do. I told him that if we were to stay alive, we needed their help.
“Doss the Boss” must have vouched for us because unofficially they started advising us as to what we needed to do and how to do it. When I provided Lt. Trublood with patrol seismic intrusion devices (PSIDS) which his team could use in the field, the cooperation became more official.
Over the course of several weeks, they began sharing tricks of their trade. It was precious information. In informal sessions they taught us about cover and concealment, camouflage techniques and noise discipline. They showed us how to keep our equipment from rattling, what our armament should be, what trails to avoid, and what signs and signals to look for. Most importantly, they taught us how to remain undetected, the techniques of escape and evasion and the tactics of fire and maneuver if we were in contact with the enemy.
Their stories became our textbook for survival, so we listened and learned. I respected these men. In my mind they were indestructible. These soldiers had balls of steel. I thought if America only knew it had such men.
In January of 1970 I learned otherwise. They were not indestructible. No solider is. I was in the backseat of an observation aircraft scouting for locations and landing zones for future missions. Suddenly, the pilot told me, “Change frequencies, a Lurp team is in trouble.”
After switching the dial, we could hear the air-to-ground chatter between their platoon leader in the air, and the Lurps on the ground. Even though the transmissions were garbled we could tell they were under intense fire. We heard them detail the seriousness of the situation and their calls for extraction.
I was not alarmed until I heard their call sign. It was Romeo 1-5. It was Doss and his team. They were outnumbered and being encircled. I could not estimate how long this engagement lasted. The situation was just too confusing.
When the transmissions ceased between the ground and the air, I suspected the worst. These soldiers, fearless to the end, had been overrun. While my heart stopped beating numerous times, their hearts stopped beating forever. Romeo 1-5 was no more.
I never learned all the details of what happened. I was not allowed access to the after-action report. All I knew was America lost four of its heroes that morning. Seeing the body bags on the tarmac later that day is a trauma I have never been able to overcome.
While I continued to see some of the Lurps in the mess hall or outside brigade headquarters, it was taboo to talk about Romeo 1-5. While I recognized some of their faces, many were rotating home. A new crop of Rangers was filling the ranks.
In late February, my team was integrated into the 4th Military Intelligence company and we moved to another area of Camp Radcliffe. The Lurps were no longer our neighbors. I have never been able to forget the tragic drama of that January morning. It is a memory seared into my soul.
The first time I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., I went looking for Romeo 1-5. I found three of them together. Mike Lyne was 18 years old when he was killed. His name is at panel 14N L8. LaRoy Roth was only 21 when he died. He is at panel 14W L9. Charlie Willard was 21, and he is at panel 14W L10.
Doss, their leader, was not with them. Doss’ name was on an entirely different panel. The names on The Wall are listed in the order in which they were killed. I assumed Doss was not listed with his teammates because he died later from his wounds.
I came to learn that Doss had miraculously survived that Jan. 7 firefight, only to be killed during another mission 60 days later. I do not know why Doss volunteered to continue to go into the jungle after all his teammates were killed. Given what he had endured, he could have remained out of the field and no one would have blamed him.
Yet, the code of the Lurps is Charlie Mike, short for “continue the mission.” However, I suspect the “Doss the Boss” went out again because he had a subconscious desire to rejoin his teammates. He is with them now and will be with them forever. These men were heroes.
It hurts when your heroes die. In war, however, it is the heroes who die first.
On Memorial Day, our nation needs to remember that our soldiers are not indestructible. There is no such thing as a bulletproof solider. Whenever a solider takes a bullet, he does so for all of us.
We need to honor these four soldiers and others just like them. Today we should take a moment to honor all of our soldiers who have died. We Americans do not know them all, but we owe them all. As a nation we should take a special moment to thank God that such men lived.
We should keep in mind America without her soldiers would be like God without his angels.
James Martin Davis is an Omaha trial attorney and Vietnam combat veteran. This is the 40th Memorial Day essay he has written for the Omaha World-Herald. In June, The World-Herald will release a compilation of his essays in paperback, $21.95. To order your copy of “Memorial Day: Our Nation’s Time to Remember,” visit owhstore.com.