Jerry Comello entered the Army upon graduation from West Point in 1962.
“We already had interests in Vietnam, but we were preoccupied with completing the Officers Basic Course, Ranger School etc., at the Infantry school and anticipating our first assignment, so we didn’t think too much about that.”
In fact, his first assignment was at Fort Riley, Kansas and Germany with the 2nd Battle Group of the 26th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division. There he cut his teeth as a new officer, and met people and had experiences that would influence both of his two tours in Vietnam. The orders for Vietnam came after he was promoted to 1st lieutenant.
“Back then, when you made 1st lieutenant, you were 'available' for assignment to Vietnam because a 1LT had been added to the battalion advisory teams. In early summer 1964 I attended the Military Assistance Training and Advisor (MATA) course at Fort Bragg and deployed to Vietnam. That course was exceptional. I couldn’t pick up the language as fast as I would’ve liked, i.e., I never had a 'conversation' in Vietnamese beyond the task at hand because most of my counterparts spoke English. But I never had a problem getting fed."
Comello was assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Command (MACV)'s Third Corps area in the Phuoc Binh Tanh Special Zone.
“Col. Manh was in charge, and his counterpart adviser was Lt. Col. John Hill. Initially I was assigned as a watch officer in the Tactical Operation Center (TOC). The Special Zone had three ARVN regiments and one Ranger battalion the, 31st Rangers. In my interview with Lt. Col. Hill I requested assignment to the 31 Rangers and he approved.
With the previous captain wounded and evacuated, the new advisory team would be comprised of Comello, Capt. David Longacre and Sgt. Bennet.
“The first thing we did was to review the notes that Capt. Thorsen had left behind, principally his maps. They were the 1 over 100,000, variety. He had marked and commented on all the recon routes they had used. To the east there was an area called War Zone D. Only part of the map had topography and color. Most of war Zone D was white, and in that space Capt. Thorsen had written: ‘There be dragons.' And he was right, there were plenty of dragons in there.”
“Two companies, the battalion headquarters and advisory team were stationed at a rubber plantation owned by a Frenchman named Legay near Phuoc Hoa. The other three companies were stationed at Phuoc Vinh, guarding the Special Zone Headquarter about eight miles to the north. Legay looked just like Lou Costello with red hair. He told us he had been in Vietnam during the World War II and been interned by the Japanese. He had been freed, he said, by Americans. After WWII he had gone to Africa to manage a rubber plantation, and he had been invited back by the Diem regime.
"He had an excellent operation. There was an old triangular French fort on the property, which was unoccupied. He had a smokehouse and processing mill, an enormous water tower, a school, a contingent of Vietnamese women that taught there, and a little railroad that ran bulk items around. The property abutted the Song Be River. He was being intimidated increasingly by the VC.
“Legay needed support to make sure his workers could get to and from the fields, and protect his convoys shipping the rubber south. So the battalion patrolled the area surrounding the plantation and cleared the road for his convoys. To clear the road, approximately 15 miles, the 48th Regiment would come north from Tan Uyen halfway, and the 31st would go south to meet them. But to coordinate with the 48th and control the operation, the best we had was the Korean War vintage PRC 10 radio, so communications was always an issue.”
It was an issue that would come back to haunt the 31st later.
“The enemy would, on occasion, mine the road, but the real concern was keeping the date of the convoy’s departure secret. Then the VC knew as much as you did, when you did. That was one of the enduring problems over there. Not only then, but on my second tour as well. The people who were ostensibly on your side, weren’t always. Anything you knew they knew, that’s for sure. As a matter of fact, to me, it appeared that what the ARVN knew the VC knew, and we advisers were the last to know. That’s not a good thing.”
“Enemy contact was sporadic. During this period of time, I believe we had the initiative, and were doing it as well as it could be done with the resources. On one occasion we overran a camp that was within striking distance of the road, but they apparently knew we were coming and had evacuated shortly before we arrived. If you engaged with them it was accidental, somebody made a mistake. They always seemed to have had the edge of knowing where you were and where you were going. On occasion you’d engage a sniper, but they were avoiding us unless they knew they had the advantage."
“After you came off TOC (Tactical Operations Center) duty, (Lt.) Col. Hill had a policy. He had operational control of Air Force Maj. Bristol, and four Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and their aircraft. He insisted that when one of the FACs went up that there was an Army officer in the back seat in case the FAC went down. So after TOC duty, you’d ride the back seat of one of these aircraft.”
“The Air Force FACs were super in spite of their initial attempt to make you airsick. Maj. George Bristol commanded the FACs and he was a great big guy. If I was flying with him it would take that O1-F half the time of the flight to get to altitude because it couldn’t haul us with the radio suite he had in it, his master set. ”
"About half way through my tour, the ARVN decided to form a new division with an area of operation inclusive of War Zone D and using resources from Phuoc Binh Tanh Special Zone. As a result Lt. Col. Hill reorganized the advisory teams and I was reassigned as assistant battalion adviser to the 1st Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment, in the new division."
In the interim of that new assignment, Comello said he was back with Tactical Operations Center while a new team joined the 31st in clearing the road one more time - an effort that would cost the soldiers their lives.
"We’d been through there a number of times, we knew there were houses under which there were rooms for 10-15 men and what that implied. Nonetheless, if you are going to make a reasonable attempt to clear that road and communicate with both ends, you have to be right there (in the middle of the road). That’s what happened once too often.
"The VC knew it was going to happen. A battalion-sized force overran the 31st headquarters."
Comello said the 31st fought until they were out of ammunition and had fought long enough to establish an aid station where they could tend to the wounded. But that didn't save them.
“In the end, the VC executed any who surrendered and all the wounded. They were all killed where they lay. I was in the TOC at the time. I was very fortunate because I would have been right there with them if I hadn’t been reassigned.
“When you ask about actions, that’s the kind of thing that was going on. You didn’t find the enemy until they were ready. They picked the time and place, they knew what you had to do and what constraints you enjoyed.”
Comello returned to the United States at the conclusion of his tour, but would return years later for a second tour. His story will conclude in next week’s column.