Many years ago, a small group of American soldiers and Montagnards from a number of tribal groups manned a small camp known as Hickory in northern South Vietnam.
Hickory was located on a knoll above Khe Sanh and housed a then-top-secret suite of intercept equipment known as Explorer. Fielded late in the conflict, Explorer may well have been the most effective collection system of the war.
The North Vietnamese Army was well aware of the effectiveness of this system and systematically planned to eliminate all of the Explorer sites in South Vietnam. They allocated a special battalion, reinforced with an assault engineer company equipped with mortars, anti-aircraft guns and flamethrowers, to the assault on Hickory.
This was a significant force, especially since Hickory had no real fortifications of the type we normally associate with the term “bunker,” a perimeter wall but two sandbags thick, and was exposed to defilade fire from a higher mountain known as 1019. There were but a handful of Americans on Hickory with roughly a reinforced platoon (some 40-50 odd men) of Montagnards.
Out of range of supporting artillery and with air support compromised by heavy rains, accompanying fog and low cloud cover, the small band of Americans commanded by Special Forces personnel including artillery observers and Army Security Agency personnel from the 5th Mechanized Division lasted but several days once the attack changed from probes to full assault.
A young Special Forces Sgt., John Jones, died on that hill during the final assault. His body was not recovered.
Then, several years ago, Louis Girdler, a veteran of the Army Security Agency, took up the challenge of documenting the fall of the Explorer sites in the Republic of Vietnam. With remarkable tenaciousness and attention to detail, he located every surviving American who had served on Hickory, as well as many of the soldiers and airmen who supported the soldiers on the ground during the intense combat that ensued.
He recovered many previously unknown records, accounts and photographs, and was instrumental in uniting the American survivors at a Special Operations convention several years ago, where they were filmed for a “living history” documentary.
Based upon his assessments from the physical testimony of the survivors, as well as the massive documentary material he had accumulated, he then prodded the Joint POW/MIA Recovery Team to return to Hickory, accompanied by two of the Special Forces soldiers who had fought on that hill.
As a result, Sgt. Jones’ remains were finally recovered and returned first to Hawaii, where they underwent DNA testing before notification of the next of kin (who also had been located by Girdler), and eventually to the mainland.
Thanks primarily to this remarkable individual, Louis Girdler, John R. Jones was buried in Arlington National Cemetery last November. John Jones was not forgotten because Americans acting with initiative and perseverance did not forget him.
Postscript: Lou Girdler is now assisting in finding the last two Army Security Agency KIAs in Vietnam who died manning another Explorer site, also overrun by the North Vietnamese Army.
Despite recent pronouncements that “we never leave a man behind,” the truth is that much hard work remains to locate many missing in action from past conflicts. I am grateful that we have such individuals as Lou Girdler who remembers, and acts, for all of us.
Col. John A. Valersky, then Capt. Valersky, commanded Hickory for four and a half days until wounded and evacuated by a medevac crew whose account of the mission can be found online at http://www.vhpa.org/stories/yellow.pdf.
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