Vietnam 40 years later: 101st Airborne Division veteran recalls Ripcord battle
May 17, 2012
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. (May 17, 2012) -- "When a free nation sends men and women to war, their sacrifice must be honored and rewarded. Regardless of outcome, these people deserve our thanks, respect, support and more importantly a place in our memories." -- Martin Hinton on the Battle of Firebase Ripcord
Tet Offensive. Fall of Saigon. Siege of the Khe Sanh. These are just a few of the names a person might hear when discussing famous battles of the Vietnam War. Less likely to be mentioned is the final high-casualty engagement between units of the U.S. infantry and the North Vietnamese Army. Taking place between March and July 1970, the Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord would stay tucked into a hidden chapter of the war's history for decades.
President Richard Nixon began withdrawing Soldiers from Vietnam, under the radar, beginning in 1969. As the remaining full-strength division, the 101st Airborne Division was tasked in 1970 with regaining initiative of the A Shau Valley, a key strategic focal point for the NVA.
So it was that members of the 187th and 506th Infantry Regiments, along with supporting units under the command of 3rd Brigade, were sent to the abandoned Fire Support Base Ripcord to set the stage for Operation Texas Star.
While American forces prepped for the offensive, determined to diminish enemy supply bases in the region, thousands of NVA soldiers moved silently through the valley, below the hilltops of the base. Aware of their intentions, the NVA worked to spring a trap.
Beginning in March of 1970, NVA troops in the A Shau Valley mounted attacks against the outnumbered troops on FSB Ripcord, using mortar attacks, anti-aircraft guns and small arms fire.
The heaviest of these attacks took place between July 1 and 23. During that time, 75 U.S. Soldiers were killed in action, making the Battle of FSB Ripcord one of the deadliest battles in the Vietnam war for the United States.
Denny Kirkham was 18 years old at the time. Drafted only one month out of high school, he served in Vietnam as a Spec 4 radio operator for 3rd Brigade's tactical operations center at Camp Evans. Working in the lines of communication, his MOS was to be picked up and placed where needed. This is how he came to be part of FSB Ripcord history.
"I woke up one night out of my bunk and was thrown into a huey with a spec 5 radio repairman," said Kirkham. "Next thing I know, we're flying in the dark, jumping off and skidding onto the hillside. That's how it all started. Tactical operations on Ripcord had been partially hit, and there was some wounded personnel. A couple of those were signal men, radio operators. We were there to resupply and support communications."
Though only there for a week and a half, Kirkham was inundated with the siege and all of the pandemonium that went along with it.
"It kind of just drug on and drug on," recalled Kirkham. "I was there for several of the attempts of the NVA to come through the wall. We were surrounded most of the time. It was my first time being under mortar and artillery fire. I witnessed several of the B-52 strikes. Some were flying so close, I could actually see the pilot as he flew by and dropped his napalm. As an 18-year-old, it was a trip."
Kirkham was also there when anti-aircraft fire from enemy forces dealt one of the biggest blows to FSB Ripcord's supply cache.
"A helicopter was shot down right above the ammo dump," said Kirkham. "It was like the whole top of the hill was coming off. That hurt us for several days. We had to depend on other bases around Ripcord to really help cover us until we could be resupplied."
Though young and in awe of his surroundings, Kirkham was aware that, like everyone else, he was placed on the hill to do a job.
"It was a counter-insurgency operation," said Kirkham. "I was a radio operator with secure information. We had classified information coming in. At one time, my radio was the only one that was transmitting. I was able to keep it going, and I was kept busy for a little farm boy from Indiana. I stayed on my toes; leaning up against sandbags to sleep for an hour, then staying up for another 12. I don't remember a bunk at all. I don't remember sleeping."
That feeling was echoed throughout the base, from the grunts in the foxholes working to diminish the strength of the NVA battalions to the "Shake n' Bake Sergeants" who'd risen through the ranks in the blink of an eye to satisfy a growing need for NCOs to lead the way.
"There were times when we were like 'This just can't keep going on,' but it did," said Kirkham. "You felt there was more than just a battle going on."
As an offensive quickly dissolved into a standoff and a fight for survival, it was decided that defending the base was not going to accomplish anything in the long run. Immediate and swift lifeline withdrawals soon followed.
"The withdrawals began happening so fast that a specialist and myself were put onto a huey that had body bags on it that were filled," said Kirkham. "We were getting off that mountain any way we possibly could toward the end. I was glad to get off there, but riding off with the KIAs was hard."
The Battle of FSB Ripcord yields staggering statistics. 14 Americans killed, 56 wounded on July 22 alone. A medal of honor posthumously awarded to Col. Andre Lucas. 1st Lt. Bob Kalsu, rookie of the year for the Buffalo Bills in 1968, was the only recently active pro football player to die in Vietnam, and did so fighting with the 101st at FSB Ripcord. Weiland Norris, brother of actor Chuck Norris, was KIA during the battle as well.
In spite of these facts, little was known about the battle for many years, and little personnel support was given while the battle waged on.
"With what was happening back in the states with the anti-war situation, they didn't want to bring up another Hamburger Hill to throw into the mix," said Kirkham. "Newspapers and TV back in the States didn't want to see those body counts."
When the FSB Ripcord Association emerged in 1985, the American public began to learn more and more about the battle. With the emergence of the story came a surprise for Kirkham: a Bronze Star in honor of his actions.
Following the war, Kirkham returned to the States and lived the civilian life for a few years. In 1975, he rejoined the Army voluntarily, serving until his retirement in 1993. He returned to his hometown of Corydon, Ind. in 2005 after the passing of his wife. Though more than 40 years separates his initial connection to the Screaming Eagles, his ties to the community remain strong. His nephew, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Bowman, currently serves with the 5th Special Forces Group.
"When he went through jump school, I was able to go and pin his wings on him," said Kirkham. "We can visit and talk military now, and he'll sit and listen to the old man's war stories. I'm proud of the fact that he's accomplished what he has."
Besides being a big influence on his military career, Bowman says that the mutual experience of being downrange has added a new bonding layer to their already solid relationship.
"I could tell somebody who's never been in combat about the situation but they'd never fully understand the horror of it; just how scared you really are," explained Bowman. "Being able to talk about it with people like my Uncle Denny, when he says 'Yeah, I know what you mean,' I know that he really does know what I mean. That really does strengthen the bond between two people."
If there's any difference between his military and his nephew's military that Kirkham truly appreciates, it's the reverence that the public sector holds toward today's Soldier.
"Today I'm glad to see guys getting off planes and being applauded," said Kirkham. "I wish we'd have had it back then. I think that is true for a lot of Vietnam vets."