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1st LT Loren “Festus” Hagen is 3rd from right , the American wearing glasses.

THE COME WALK WITH ME SERIES

RT KANSAS - VIETNAM: THE SEARCH FOR THE MYSTERY PILOT

I wrote this missive several years before my Come Walk with Me Series came to life, while walking battlefields and writing about them.

Whilst packing and disposing of 42 years of a life that had included 32 years of military assignments (with my now ex-USMC husband), I came across an audio recording by a mystery pilot, whose name was lost to age and history until I decided to search for him. I was not a military historian nor a military strategist. Against all odds, I did something that led me to find the mystery pilot who recorded that mission in Vietnam on 7 August 1971. 

I was met with many barriers along the way but I never gave up the search and two years later, the miracle took place three days before that Christmas when another pilot in that unit heard the CD I had sent him. He called and said he remembered who recorded that firefight.  The rest is history. 

The moral to this story for all my readers, is that no matter the age, never give up. Do not allow anyone to tell you that you can’t do something. You might get discouraged along the way but never give up. Set your intention and continue on as it is in the journey that you find what you are looking for and at the end of that journey, the satisfaction of knowing you had accomplished what you had set out to do makes all the difference. 

A walk with RT Kansas 
This is one of my occasional missives. It is Friday afternoon on the eve of Veterans’ Day weekend 2013.

My thanks to my brother, Stan, who bounced research background to me as I mentioned I wanted to find the families of those Americans to give them copies of the audio I had in my possession.

My thanks to Mike, my ex-husband for taking care of that mini-cassette for so many years in order that it has found its way home as part of the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) archives. It will be preserved and protected for all time as part of the Reconnaissance Team Kansas story.

Special thanks to John (Crusty) Garrison who contacted the president of the SOA (Special Operations Association) Clyde Sincere, who, in turn, contacted me in thanks that I provided a piece  of historical interest.

My special thanks to Dennis Cummings, archivist for the Special Operations Association.

Come Walk with Me
I sit with ghosts who will not fade until I write a few words about them.  I am listening to the audio of a firefight that took place on old fire base Scotch, not far from Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh was a  Marine Combat base  already  deserted three years later when a small reinforced spike team (6 USA special forces and 8 Montagnards) is dropped off on Scotch for an overnight mission 6/7Aug71. The intent was to take a North Vietnamese soldier as prisoner in order to learn information of numbers, build-ups and operations in the area. The A Shau Valley was ‘bad boy territory’ and now in 2013 looking at the faded pictures of that area, it is still a very forbidding place.

The team consisted of 1LT Loren Hagen, (team lead and 1-0), Sgt. Tony Andersen (1-1 who would take over when Hagen is killed), Sgt. Berg, SSgt. Bingham, Sgt. Rimondi, Sgt. Queen and 8 Montagnards, indigenous tribal people. The Americans are all Army Special Forces.

The background and why I have an audio of this fight that no one else has from that mission is that a cobra pilot who had been involved in the mission on 7Aug gave the cassette tape to Mike.  Mike had just joined the unit, C Battery, 4th Battalion, 77th Artillery, ARA (Aerial Rocket Artillery) a week after this mission. The cobra pilot handed the cassette to Mike telling him to protect it. Come 1998 we are in Vietnam with a very small group touring parts of Vietnam. I wanted to see where Mike had been shot down and rescued among the other battlefields we walked. Upon our return to California, he found the cassette tape in a box, wondering how he could transfer the cassette to a CD. I worked for the Lightspan Partnership, an educational company complete with studio. How fortuitous that Rick Bowman, former Navy and one of our engineers at the studio, had worked in the Combat Center gathering intelligence during his assignments on US Navy ships. He knew what I had and cleaned up the background static from age and deterioration to bring that audio back to life.

Mike took great care to transcribe the conversations on all 4 radios, at times all going at once, in order for the untrained ears among those listening to his brief, could understand what was going on. One can distinctly hear conversations, the transmissions of the cobras, the F-4s and the Hueys that will eventually land to pick up the wounded and dead. The adrenaline still runs high 42 years later while listening to the air support and the voice of Andersen and Rimondi on the ground calling in directions where to put down napalm and fire cover as the North Vietnamese are coming up the slopes.

So why is RT Kansas important on this Veterans’ Day? Overwhelming odds and numbers of the enemy, 2,000 North Vietnamese strong, attacked RT Kansas’ position of 14 members. Sheer daunting as one considers previous battles of old with those numbers…………. The Alamo, the Spartans, Custer’s situation.

As Churchill said, “Where do we get such men?”

RT Kansas is dropped onto Firebase Scotch the previous night and throughout that night there is heard large movement of activity from the enemy below.  The team has landed almost within spitting distance of the North Vietnamese High Command first laid fuel pipeline across the DMZ that separates North and South Vietnam.  The High Command was already in preparation for what would later be called the Easter Offensive in 1972. The pipeline would be needed when entire tank battalions would roll across the demilitarized line.

Through the night an AC-130 gunship called Spectre, provided air support to keep the team being overrun and at first light, approximately 0630 all hell is let loose. Within 4 minutes of the start of the fight, Sgt. Berg, Sgt. Bingham, 1LT Hagen, who is later recognized for his bravery and courage, receives the Army’s last Medal of Honor  from the Vietnam War, and a Montagnard are killed. Two of the three survival radios are destroyed. The third, thankfully, is the one still operating which one hears the audio of the fight and to call in air support.
 
The battle only lasts 30 minutes but by the time it ends, the Americans/Montagnards on the ground have killed 185, unknown wounded and air support has killed or wounded countless others in order for the Hueys to land and pick up the team. From the 14 members, 9 are killed. Three Americans and 6 Montagnards. The rest are wounded. Despite his own wounds, Andersen returns later in the day with another mission to recover 1LT Hagen’s and the Montagnards’ bodies. Sgt. Berg’s body was never found.

According to the citation that 1LT Hagen received posthumously as the Medal of Honor

recipient, it states that he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he moved from area

to area directing fire, resupplying the team with ammo while returning small arms and

hand grenade fire to repel the advancing enemy fire. He was struck down when he ran to

get Sgt. Berg whose bunker blew up at the start of the assault.

Sgt. Tony Andersen received the Distinguished Service Cross.  SSgt. Oren Bingham,

Sgt. Bruce Berg, Sgt. Bill Queen, Sgt. William Rimondi are awarded Silver Stars of

which Berg and Bingham receive posthumously.

Covey, FAC (Forward Air controller) is distinctly heard speaking to School Hanger

(Andersen) on the ground as the plane strafes the enemy with his machine guns and

rockets. He coordinates the Cobras  (C battery 4th BN 77th ARA) and fast movers

(F-4s out of Danang) to lay down fire support  in the form of mini-guns, 20mm cannon

shells………..F-4s were dropping napalm and firing Vulcan cannons that helped turn the

tide of advancing  NVA. In all this Andersen has kept his calm as he directs Covey where

to set the fire support he needs. Later someone reports the stacks and stacks of enemy bodies up the slopes and more surrounding the wounded American and Montagnards on that smoke-shrouded hill.

Andersen is then heard on the audio to get the Hueys to land to pick up the dead and wounded.

Covey is then heard asking someone on board the Hueys to give him a count who is on board and to make sure the ground is clear before leaving the area. As written earlier, Bright Light Mission returns later to recover 1LT Hagen’s body and the remaining dead Montagnards.

The ghosts on that audio are departing. They have done their duty as I have discharged mine to write about them on this Veterans’ Weekend.

"Thank you for your service” is never enough to verse as so much is owed to these brave men…and women…. who have gone into harm’s way when their countries/nations call. I give my grateful thanks and the respect due you!

...Lfe has a flavor that the protected will never know.

I Return to the East Coast
In 2015, I was living in Tucson, Arizona. The reason I was to be on the East Coast was to attend my mother’s internment of her ashes at the family cemetery in Pennsylvania. Mom was 85 when she passed 1 July, 2015. She had a full life and would be laid to rest next to Dad and her parents. It would be the last time my brother, sister, and I would be in Pennsylvania as none of us lived there and all had lives that had led us elsewhere beyond Center Square.

My high school friend, Therese Zapf, met me at the Philadelphia airport. Despite the years, it did not take long to catch up as we drove past pre-American Revolutionary War farms that were no more. In their place were very expensive homes and communities, shopping centers everywhere. On the way to her North Wales home, we went over the schedule where I would be during the week of my visit prior to Therese dropping me off at the cemetery. We would see my birthplace, hike the areas outside our high school that still speak of pre-American Revolutionary untouched by progress which was always heard not far from the hiking paths, visits back and forth between her adult children, grandchildren which was most fun. Lots of eating Philadelphia cultural favorites that can only be found in the Philly area…a trip down memory lane which had us laughing. We can’t eat half the stuff now as our digestive systems will not allow. Ah! Youth is wasted on the young! J

A walk back into Vietnam
Greg McSwain, my unknown cobra pilot who recorded the air mission of RT Kansas

7Aug71, remained a mystery until one of the cobra pilots of 4/77 ARA remembered

after listening 6 times to the audio. I received the call from Chuck Lovelace that he

not only was on that mission but also the cobra pilot who recorded the mission. It

had been 44 years since the mission with 6 Special Forces members and

8 Montagnards on Old Firebase Scotch. A mission that had gone bad; 3 Americans,

including the last Army Medal of Honor recipient for the Vietnam War, died on

that mountain with wounded Montagnards. 2,000 North Vietnamese were at the

bottom of that mountain focused on taking out the Americans.

My friend, Becky Brown, was called to help me locate Greg McSwain as she had a

people locator. Within an hour I was speaking with Greg McSwain telling him he

made my Christmas as I had been looking for him. He laughed, became overwhelmed,

wondering what had happened to that cassette tape. I told him he had given it to a

then WO1 Mike Williams who had just come in country 15 Aug. It was forgotten in

a dusty shoebox until 1998 when Mike and I went to Vietnam as I wanted to see

where Mike had been shot down and rescued. We returned home to Camp Pendleton,

Mike now a colonel in the Marine Corps. He remembered the mini-cassette tape in

that dusty shoebox and the rest is history.

My son, Sean, an E-7 in the active National Guard in Virginia, met Greg in the spring and over lunch handed him the copy of the audio.

When I made the arrangements for the East Coast, I asked Sean to contact Greg and invite him to lunch. We would meet 9Nov. What a moment! Better than the t-shirt to prove I was there. Greg and his wife of 50 years met us at the Sagebrush restaurant, Colonial Heights VA. I met my guy who recorded the mission. I not only learned his thoughts of what he could remember of that day but his life before and after the Army. He told of stories that made us laugh and only those who have lived a military life could appreciate.

After several hours, Sean and I could tell Greg was tired. He was 75 and not well. He was going to see a doctor later in the week due to sudden weight loss and other symptoms. Greg said it was still unbelievable that I found him, did not give up in my search. The irony is that he had two tours in Vietnam and the only time he recorded a mission was that mission, RT Kansas. The audio had travelled around the world in a shoebox, a divorce after 42 years in which I had to dismantle an entire household and came across the audio. It finally made its way home to Greg.

I told a few friends that I was not sure how I would feel, glad or sad, the day I could walk away from Vietnam and not look back knowing I did everything possible to accomplish what I had set out to do with my Reconnaissance Team Kansas project. It turned into a labor of love and only I know how much love and effort I put into it.  My name will not be remembered but I would have gotten everyone together one more time to be young….and a warrior.

His wife, Loretta, hugged me as we were leaving the restaurant and whispered her grateful thanks. She had not seen Greg that animated in so long. He had the eyes of a cobra pilot remembering missions and would do it again if he could. His frail health prevented him from driving and he could not travel far. Loretta did the driving these days. My son, Sean, and I had a private moment with Greg and his wife without social media, utube, newspaper reporters. Just 4 people and an audio from 44 years ago that brought us together. Greg and I hugged one more time. The audio went home.

2018
At the 2018 Special Operations Association Reunion, there was renewed interest in the RT Kansas firefight mission of 7Aug71. The audio was in the hands of a video documentary crew for their background to the relationship of Loren “Festus” Hagen and his search for his high school friend, Alan Boyer. Why Loren volunteered to go to Vietnam and where he died always searching for his best friend. They now lie 50 feet away from each other in Arlington Cemetery.

I had asked a friend, Rowena Najafi-Cross of Bedford, Indiana if she could help locate the family of Loren Hagen through Ancestry.com. She had sent my request to contact the Hagen family which was received immediately. The brother of Loren, Mike Hagen was deeply appreciative of my search in order to give the family the audio to be handed down through future generations. There was scant information from the Army of Loren’s death so I was able to fill in details from my own research.

A copy of the audio is also in the hands of the POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington DC in hopes of finding what had happened to the remains of Sgt. Berg who was killed that day.

I was so happy that the audio was finally receiving notice and attempted to contact Greg McSwain. I knew in my heart where to find him. It took me two years to locate him and only two minutes to be told through another friend, Janice Connett, where to find Greg at Arlington Cemetery. He had died that March and would not know the far reaching effects his audio had touched among many.

In July 2019 my son and I visited Arlington Cemetery to pay our respects to Greg McSwain and Loren Hagen. They lie in separate sections of Arlington so it was a bit of a hike to get to both locations. There were many tourists on their tours of the special sites but where we stood, there was no one. We were given the quiet among those who had served and died for our country. I felt it was part of my closure but to complete full closure, I would need to return to Vietnam and stand on Old Firebase Scotch.

...LEST WE FORGET!