Leadership by Example
by Andrew P. O’Meara. Jr., Colonel, United States Army, Retired
In the early years of the War, American advisors assigned to Vietnamese Army units as individuals soon became de facto members of the unit. We spoke Vietnamese, or made a valiant try to master the tonal language – a goal beyond the reach of those of us with a tin ear. We ate Vietnamese chow out of rice bowls with chop sticks. We slept on the ground beside our Vietnamese comrades on combat operations. As our units received new equipment, we introduced the American weapons and tactics. We offered advice to our counterparts, as appropriate. When all else failed we led by example, especially in combat when time was of the essence and words failed to bridge barriers to understanding.
Picture above is of Lieutenant O’Meara and Vietnamese friends of the First Cavalry Regiment with family members in February 1963 in the town of Dong Xoai. The Regiment had one Troop stationed as part of the garrison, which included Civil Guards. They treated me like a son or brother. Their friendship created a bond with our Vietnamese comrades resisting communism that altered me forever. I had never experienced anything like their sincere friendship and the experience created deep loyalties to the people of Vietnam.
I joined the Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s First Cavalry Regiment in October 1962 as an Infantry Advisor to a mechanized infantry company equipped with newly fielded M-113s – the best armored personnel carrier on either side of the Iron Curtain. We operated across the length and breadth of the III Corps Tactical Zone, making forays into communist sanctuaries including War Zone D, War Zone C, and the Iron Triangle–the most dangerous Communist base area in the Corps and a thorn in our side because it occupied terrain adjacent to Highway 13, the main supply route in the region. Our mechanized infantry companies consequently made multiple raids into the Iron Triangle to disrupt enemy operations.
We fought the Viet Cong, but we were unable to destroy our enemy because a vast tunnel network that connected the enemy fighting positions greatly complicated clearing the Iron Triangle. The primary weapon of the enemy consisted of mine fields, covered by fire from well concealed fighting positions connected by tunnels that permitted Viet Cong snipers to inflict casualties on our units and withdraw unseen. There were twenty-seven kilometers of tunnels connecting the fortified hamlets of the Iron Triangle when we made our forays into the enemy base area, which meant that we never cleared more than a fraction of the enemy fortified zone during any one operation. Once the Government troops withdrew, the Viet Cong reoccupied their base area and resumed their attacks on our convoys moving on Highway 13.
In the winter of 1963 I got word that I was to accompany the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Company of the Regiment on an extended operation in the Iron Triangle. Attached to an infantry battalion, supported by an engineer company for the assault on the Communist base area we planned to remain in the Iron Triangle for two months, digging out the tunnels and blowing up the underground complexes with the help of the engineers.
Commencing our initial assault, we encountered stiff resistance, taking many casualties from the mines and small arms fire. The infantry battalion and the engineers pushed down the main road from Ben Cat leading into the eastern sector of the enemy base area, clearing the Viet Cong fortified positions in the process. Despite the enemy resistance we pushed deep into the Iron Triangle. The mechanized infantry paralleled the progress of the dismounted infantry and engineers, covering their flank along the secondary jungle that covered the interior of the base area. We could hear the heavy explosions of the mines that punctuated the fire fights as the enemy was driven deeper into their base area.
About mid-morning we got word that the Engineer Advisor, Captain Kenworthy, had been severely injured by a mine. The report made clear that he would not survive without medical assistance. The Task Force halted and made attempts to reach Kenworthy, who was well forward in the midst of a heavily mined area that the engineers had been trying to clear. From the sounds of the explosions we roughly pinpointed the location of the wounded advisor. I told my counterpart, Captain Thoan, that I would go to the aid of the stricken advisor. Captain Thoan told me, “Don’t go O’Meara. It is a very dangerous area.” I knew that to hesitate meant the loss of a brave comrade and told Thoan that I had to try to save the man. I asked for volunteers to help me carry the advisor out of the mined area. The men looked at me with wide eyes, but none stepped forward.
Grabbing my M-1 I dismounted from the track and with my heart in my throat, began making my way toward the location of the fallen American officer. I watched carefully for mines, placing each foot on ground that was either well worn or marked with M-113 tracks, where our vehicles had traversed the area and either detonated the mines or crushed the trip wires they traversed. I thus pushed forward in the direction of the firefight using the narrow paths made by the tracks of the armored vehicles.
After moving forward carefully for what seemed an eternity, I spotted a Vietnamese medic kneeling over the wounded advisor. I quickly observed that Kenworthy had taken the full blast of the mine. He was unconscious, lying in a large puddle of dark blood, with multiple fragments in the face, his lower leg was nearly severed, and he had taken one piece of shrapnel through the left hand. The medic was bandaging the left hand, a simple wound that the young Vietnamese medic felt he could handle. The life threatening wound was the leg injury, which bled profusely. I removed my boot laces to place a tourniquet above the knee. Then I took bandages from the medic’s kit, heavily bandaging the lower leg.
With the bleeding was stopped, I looked around for help, Kenworthy being too big for me to carry. The medic, not about to move deeper into the minefield, refused to help me. I would have to return to Captain Thoan’s Command Track to locate a stretcher and someone to help me carry the unconscious man out of the mined area. I gingerly made my way back through the minefield, placing my feet in footprints I had made when I entered the area.
I found the Command Track and told Thoan that I thought that we could save the American advisor, but I would need a litter and someone to help me carry the unconscious man. I asked for volunteers from the unit. Again there were no takers.
I turned to an American Staff Officer from Saigon, who had asked to accompany the unit to observe our operation. I told him I needed his help now. Reluctant to go, he reminded me that the Commander had strongly advised us not to enter the mine field. I told him: “If you don’t come now, Kenworthy will die.” He agreed to help. I grabbed a litter and told him to follow me placing his feet where I placed mine. We gingerly made our way back to Kenworthy’s location. We placed him on the litter and began the difficult trek back through the danger area with the heavily laden litter. I led the way carefully placing my feet in the footprints I had previously made. After a difficult struggle along the circuitous route, we cleared the mine field and loaded the litter into the M-113.
Captain Thoan had requested a medical evacuation helicopter. Accompanied by a platoon of infantry, he then led the way down to open ground composed of rice paddies lined with paddy dikes. The dike running along the south side of the rice fields was a large dike that bordered a canal. I told Thoan that we would land the chopper on the south paddy dike, which was large enough to land a chopper. Again comrades warned me not to venture out onto the paddy dike, which could have been mined to restrict movement into the area. We ignored the warnings. The Staff Officer and I dismounted the track with the litter and made our way out to the center of the dike that had no obstructions that would hinder the landing of the chopper.
Presently we heard the thump, thump, thump of the chopper blades and I saw the silhouette of the bird above the tree line. I threw a smoke grenade and guided the pilot to a safe landing. The Crew Chief dismounted, and I told him not to remove the tourniquet because Kenworthy had lost too much blood. He acknowledged my warning, and the crew of the medical evacuation chopper took over loading the litter into the helicopter, which quickly lifted off.
The next day we got word from the AmericanHospital in Saigon that the tourniquet had saved Kenworthy’s life. Our efforts were not in vain. We had saved a life and had set an example that spoke more eloquently than mere words, demonstrating the importance of taking risks to save a comrade. Leadership by example had showed young soldiers the importance of immediate action to aid a comrade even when the situation looked hopeless.
Prior to my departure from Vietnam, the Army recognized my actions to save a fellow advisor by the award of the Bronze Star for valor.
 The town was overrun by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) who wiped out the entire garrison and the villagers. It was a Catholic village that had been resettled from the Red River Delta after the partition of the country. The Communists had an intense hatred of those, who had fled the Communist North, which translated into a death sentence for those later captured by the VC or NVA. I was a Roman Catholic and I attended Mass with the villages during my stay in the village while awaiting the commencement of an operation into War Zone D. The media covered the fall of Dong Xoai, but they failed to fault the communists for annihilating the villagers. They saved their criticism for the garrison that called in air strikes on their positions in a fruitless attempt to halt the communist attacks.