The 173rd Airborne Brigade was established in 1917 as an infantry brigade before serving in France during World War I. Redesignated in 1942 as the 87th Recon Troop, the 173rd fought in three European campaigns. Inactivated in 1951, it was reactivated in March 1963 and allotted to the regular Army on Okinawa as the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a quick reaction force. Extensive training in mass parachute jumps earned them the nickname "Tien Bien" meaning "Sky Soldiers."
The Sky Soldiers were the first major ground combat unit deployed to Vietnam in May 1965. In more than six years of continuous combat, the highly-decorated soldiers of the 173rd earned 13 Congressional Medals of Honor. One MOH recipient, a medic named Lawrence Joel, earned the MOH in the fight for Hill 65 in War Zone D. He was the first black man since the Spanish-American War to receive such an honor.
Conyers resident Dale Ney became a 17-year-old military policeman in 1958. After an assignment to war-torn South Korea, then tedious duty at the Army stockade in Fort Riley, Kan., Ney decided on a new and exciting path in 1961 - he went Airborne.
Ney said, "I was assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky., and made 32 jumps from choppers, C-119s, C-123s and the C-141 Starlifter." Ney made Buck Sergeant with the 501st "Geronimo" battle group and became a machine gunner with the LRRPS (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols; pronounced Lurps). "I was young and gung-ho, so I volunteered for Vietnam." Protests from his pregnant wife and 18-month-old son went unheeded; Ney was en route to Vietnam within three weeks.
Nov. '65 - Sgt. Ney is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade at Bien Hoa about 20 miles north of Saigon. He would spend the next 12 months in thick jungle and thick combat against a determined enemy.
Ney said, "My squad leader, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Sgt. Derry, took me under his wing. He taught me well." On Ney's first patrol, the point man spotted a unit of Viet Cong resting in a field. Ney said, "He motioned me forward then pointed at the VC. We moved cautiously toward the enemy. When I sensed enemy movement, we opened up with everything we had, but received no return fire. We chewed them up pretty bad, but found no blood. That's when Sgt. Derry walked up and said, ‘Dead men don't bleed.' We'd blown away dead soldiers, but that wasn't what concerned Sgt. Derry. He told us, ‘You could have been walking into an ambush.' Like I said, he taught us well."
Firefights, ambushes, casualties, mortar attacks, an unseen enemy, impenetrable jungles and filthy rice paddies became a daily routine. Ney said, "The brutality was really bad and atrocities happened on both sides. I remember one patrol when the platoon next to us got ambushed. Nobody came back. We found a young trooper hung upside down, naked, no wounds except a bullet through his temple. He had been executed to ‘send us a message' but it only enraged us. I can still see that boy's face."
With experience under his web belt, Ney became squad leader after Sgt. Derry rotated stateside. "I was the old man by then," he said. "The new troops had to learn fast and accept things like bodies charcoaled to black chunks by a napalm strike, the horrible smells; the stiffness of death."
In late summer '66, Ney and his men found themselves supporting an Air America (C.I.A.) covert interdiction operation near or in Cambodia on the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. "We provided security for a demolition team and for some reason a young ‘tunnel rat' (soldiers who crawled into enemy tunnels) donned a gas mask and scooted inside the tunnel before we could stop him. We realized the oxygen had been sucked out of the tunnel by the detonation. The boy was dead when we pulled him out. We never understood why he did that."
Unbeknownst to Ney's unit, American Special Forces units had booby-trapped many of the enemies' pineapple grenades found inside the tunnels. Ney said, "Our lieutenant and medic were tossing pineapple grenades into the tunnels. The first two were duds, but the third was booby-trapped and did not have the standard seven second delay. It detonated and blew off the medic's arm. Those types of things can keep you up at night."
On another patrol, Ney's unit was traversing a jungle trail when they came under concentrated enemy fire. Jumping to the side of the trail for cover, Ney became a casualty of an old Viet Cong trick. His arm was impaled on a punji stick - a whetted bamboo spear stuck in the ground and normally coated with a toxic plant, frogs or feces. The resulting infections sidelined many troops in Vietnam. Ney said, "I just pulled it out. It hurt, but I didn't get it treated. In three days, my arm was so swollen it looked like Popeye's. Everything over there seemed like it was against us - the leeches, red ants, poisoned papaya fruit left by the villagers, and of course, dung-covered punji sticks."
Ney considered the ‘search and destroy' operations counter-productive. "They didn't make sense to me," he said. "We'd go into a village, torch it, kill animals and destroy village rice, and days later, a medical or propaganda team would go in and try ‘to win them over' - totally ridiculous, if you ask me."
Ney survived horrific combat on rubber plantations, received ‘tree fragments' in his face from a near-miss, lost his hearing from nearby explosions, ‘scrambled like hell' from B-52 strikes, found dead enemy soldiers chained to their machine guns to prevent them from retreating, fought alongside Australian and New Zealand soldiers - "darn good fighters," according to Ney, and managed to laugh when the North Vietnamese radio propaganda queen Hanoi Hanna, called the troopers of the 173rd ‘a bunch of gangsters from Chicago.'
Ney holds a grudge, as do many Vietnam veterans. He said, "When Jane Fonda went to North Vietnam and offered comfort and aid to the enemy, well, we drew straws to see which one of us would be the ‘hit man.' Don't know who drew the ‘short stick' but it wasn't me."
Ney returned home exhausted, lost 20 pounds, hospitalized with an unidentified fever for five days, missed his men and strangely wanted to return to the war, but had to face the reality of a wife and two kids that needed him home. Ney left the military in August 1967.
Dale Ney retired from a car dealership business and now spends most of his time on a golf course. He said, "When I got back from Nam jobs were hard to find and a lot of folks didn't treat veterans very well. I recall asking for a job at a utility company in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When the young man found out I was a Vietnam veteran, he said, ‘No thanks, we don't need anyone killed today.' To tell you the truth, I hated civilian life for a lot of years."
Yes, my brother, I know.
Pete Mecca - Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.