Colonel Healy's Lonely Hearts Club Band
By SSG George "Sonny" Hoffman
In June of 1968, General Creighton W. Abrams assumed command of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam. The very conventional Abrams was no lover of Special Forces. With orders to begin Vietnamizing the war, he moved quickly to phase out the SF role and send the 5th Special Forces Group home. His early efforts were thwarted by many high level people that thought SF was an efficient use of American manpower, and that their use should increase as US forces pulled out. The mad rush to turn over the SF camps to the Vietnamese resulted in disaster, and Abrams was forced to slow his plans.
The perception in the Abrams camp was that the Special Forces were digging their heels in and resisting their phase out. The perception throughout SF was that Abrams was out to get them. Both were right.
When I arrived in-country on September 17, '69, the war between the SF and Gen. Abrams was in high gear. In August, Abrams relieved the 5th SF Group commander. MACV jailed him and seven other Green Berets on a charge of killing a Vietnamese double agent. The charges were later dropped, but Abrams replaced our commander with a non-Special Forces colonel, a man that wasn't even jump qualified--what SFers call a "straight leg."
To be led by a "leg" was a tremendous blow to the Green Berets. It was meant to be a slap in the face; the slap stung. SF slapped back by playing to the media. The Green Berets are almost as good as the U.S. Marines when it comes to protecting and projecting their image.
The press came down hard on Abrams and made heroes of the eight Green Berets sitting in Long Binh Jail--the infamous LBJ. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the new colonel was trying to earn his jump wings by making five jumps in a jump school designed especially for him. He broke his leg and was shipped home in a cast. His replacement was Colonel "Iron Mike" Healy. At that time, he was arguably the finest Special Forces officer anywhere. He was Mr. Green Beret. How he got command was a mystery, but a pleasant surprise. One thing for certain, though, it wasn't Abrams' idea.
"Iron Mike" was loved and respected by every man that soldiered under a green beanie. Colonel Healy was hard core and told it like it was; but more importantly, he took no crap off of anyone, including Abrams and his command staff. He was an officer we would have followed into hell without a map or compass. We all knew that the end of our involvement in the war was near, because the American people were tired of the endless stalemate. We knew we would go, but at least under Mike Healy, leaving would look less like a rout and more like our own idea.
Leaving Vietnam was difficult for many of the old timers. Some traced their involvement all the way back to 1944 when--as members of the OSS--they trained Ho Chi Minh's rag tag band of guerrillas to fight the Japanese. Special Forces advisory teams were making regular visits to South Vietnam as early as 1957. Our first casualty was recorded that same year, just outside Nha Trang. He was Captain Harry G. Cramer. He died two years before we even started counting Vietnam war dead, so his name is not on The Wall in DC.
Many old timers seemed to be homesteading Vietnam. Encountering men with six, seven, or eight tours was not uncommon in 1969. On my team, A-502, SFC Jim Tolbert had become an icon. He was reputed to have beach front property, a pig farm, and a fleet of pedicabs. Others had gone native and were deeply involved with the people, especially the Yards. The prospect of leaving was traumatic to contemplate. We all knew the South Vietnamese could not, or would not fight. We feared the worst for the Yards, as they had thrown in their lot with us and we were packing it in.
Closing an A-camp (they were actually turned over to the Vietnamese) was a sad affair. Most of the camps had been in existence since 1961 and were a home away from home to many SFers. When I arrived at camp A-502 around the first of October of '69, we had just been told to plan on closing the camp by the first of March 1970. I took the news in stride, but the guys that had spent years building the place and training the troops were despondent about turning it over to the Vietnamese.
When the big day finally arrived, we stood in formation with the camp strikers (now called Rangers), the LLDB, and local dignitaries for the change of command. That night, the American team members gathered at one of our old outposts in Nha Trang for a private party. For the party, we hired a Filipino Rock band (they were common in Vietnam, and played the U.S. club circuit) and invited SF support personnel from the Special Forces Operational Base in Nha Trang for a real blow out. The object was to let it all hang out and get curb-crawling, knuckle-dragging, commode-hugging drunk.
The bash was to be the last time many of us would see each other, as we were all slated to be either sent home, or sent out to other A-teams to finish out our tours. Since Sgt. Bemis and I still had six months to go, we were awaiting reassignment. Don Bemis and I had become great friends and we shared a common past as members of Rock and Roll bands in high school. I had been a drummer; he was a singer. Jim Tolbert was a balladier and guitar player who had several records out that were popular in Vietnam. He wrote and sang, Purple Heart and Choi Oi among others. He was well known in the 5th Group and could be counted on to pick up his guitar and keep guys entertained for hours, strumming his war ballads. The guy was damn good.
During the performance, Bemis and I asked to sit in on a few numbers with the band. Later, Jim picked up a guitar and was joined by Dalton Kast, a staff sergeant from Project Delta. Kast was outstanding on guitar, but his real talent was his singing. He sounded more like Johnny Cash than Johnny Cash did. For a group that just fell together out of the blue, we weren't half bad. Maybe it was all the booze, but we were a big hit and stayed on for the rest of the night. When the band's time was up, they left their instruments with us to be picked up in the morning. They knew we wanted to keep playing, and they didn't want to stop our party. Long into the early morning hours, A-502 went down partying hard. It was a close-out party none of us would ever forget, and a most fitting way to end our involvement at Camp Trung Dung.
A lieutenant colonel (his name escapes me) from "Iron Mike's" staff attended our party. As we played our hearts out, the seed of a bizarre idea began to germinate in his head. He said nothing to us that night, or for several days following the party, but after the party, strange things began to happen.
The first inkling that something was up came the next morning when Bemis and I went to find out what our new assignments would be. While all the other team members that weren't going home drew assignments and headed for the four corners of the war, we were told that our orders were flagged--put on hold. No explanation was given, we were just told to wait. Waiting is hell when you wait in the dark.
Two days later, we bumped into Jim Tolbert who was supposed to have left for Cam Ranh Bay to board a freedom bird for home. In his case, they had asked his permission to flag his orders, still saying nothing except that they wouldn't ask if it wasn't important, and that he wasn't in any kind of trouble. Jim wasn't happy about the flagging, but being a good soldier, gave his consent. Jim had good reasons for wanting on that freedom bird and missing home wasn't one of them. Evidently, he had some problems with liquidating some of his unofficial assets and was laying low.
With Tolbert's inclusion, we at least had something to go on--we were the three team members that got on stage at the party. Why that would generate a flag on our orders was beyond our reasoning. The only thing we could figure was that some big wigs wanted us to jam at their private party. If that was the case, we knew Tolbert would go berserk. Out of curiosity, we looked up that staff sergeant from Project Delta, Dalton Kast. He was easy to find, as he had been put on administrative stand down (no combat operations) the morning after the party.
He was happy to see us, as it gave him a clue as to what was going down. Dalton gave us the only rational explanation for the puzzle: the Filipino band had obviously put a claim against the 5th Group for damages to their instruments, and until it was settled, no one would go anywhere. We knew we hadn't done the instruments any harm, but it would not have been the first time someone tried to scam Uncle Sam.
The idea of being wrongly accused bothered us greatly. The Filipino band was still in the area. We found them at the Air Force NCO Club and cornered the leader between sets. He was very friendly and swore they had made no complaints against us. We were back to square one.
The riddle unfolded the next morning in a briefing at the headquarters building. Present were Jim Tolbert, Dalton Kast, Don Bemis, the lieutenant colonel from the party, a few staff officers and me. We were in a briefing room about to get briefed. We sat around a large oblong table with a huge map of Southeast Asia on the wall. The lieutenant colonel stood at the map end of the table.
He said, "Gentlemen, I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark, but until last night, I had nothing to put out. I know you all realize that we are in the process of closing out A-camps throughout Vietnam. Your camp, A-502, was one of the first. The pace of camp closings will pick up in the coming months. Within the next six months, most of the camps will be closed. We are slated to be out of Vietnam by the end of the year. The way you guys went out, is the way Colonel Healy wants all A-camps to go out--with a party. Iron Mike said, 'In Special Forces, we fight hard and we party hard. When the fighting's over, it's time to party.'
"The problem is, most of our camps are in the most remote regions and getting a civilian band to them is too risky and would probably cost a small fortune. The men on those border camps haven't seen any form of entertainment in years: no bands, dancing girls, TV, not even a donut dolly.
"What we need, gentlemen, is a combat band--a band, every bit as good as anything that tours the rear areas, but composed of volunteers from within the ranks. We need a band that can play popular rock and country music to go to the camps and provide the entertainment for their close-out parties. We have no idea how this will go over. You may get blown away the first time you set up out in the open and start playing. Charlie may not like rock or country; we just don't know how he will react.
"The bottom line is this: Colonel Healy wants a first-rate combat band ready to roll out of here within thirty days. He promises all the support that is required. What I need to know is: can it be done, and who wants in?"
Jim wanted in but for personal reasons had to decline. Dalton, Don, and I readily agreed to sign on for the duration. Dalton, being the ranking NCO, took command and we went to work building a combat band.
Our first order of business was to figure out what a combat band was, then decide how to go about building it. We needed to locate instruments. Special Services loaned us drums and guitars and a third rate PA system. The equipment would not serve our purposes, but it would do as a start. Jim Tolbert remained to help get the show going and serve as a scrounge. When it came to scrounging, Jim put me to shame. What ever we thought of, he found, and we acquired.
We needed a lead and a base guitarist. Jim found them both in Nha Trang. Pete Barra was a jazz guitarist from New York. Pete was drafted into the army as a clerk, but his passion was jazz. Pete could make a guitar do anything: jazz, country, rock, blues, and he made it all look easy. When Pete heard something once, he was ready to play.
Red Sirois, from Maine, played base with the group that put out, Bird is the Word. He was a real pro and needed little or no practice. He, too, was a draftee and Nha Trang clerk--the band had two "legs." Getting the two clerks released to us was no problem. Getting them to go out in the jungle to play their guitars was another matter. In the end, the desire to play music for a living won out and a band was formed: Dalton, Don, Pete, Red, and Sonny.
The band needed a name, or so we thought. We learned that there was no place for a band of any kind in the Special Forces organizational structure. The whole project was to be low profile--no promotion. Without promotion, what good is a name? Unofficially, we were referred to as the 5th Special Forces Group Political Warfare Band. We were also called: The 5th Group, The Green Beanies, The Round Eye Band, Iron Mike's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mostly, we were just, "The Band."
Equipment was a big priority. We needed the right equipment, and fast, so we could begin working with the instruments we would be going out with. The funds to buy this equipment came from a CIA special operations slush fund--or so the story went. I doubt we will ever know where the money came from, but it was unofficial funds to be sure. We were warned not to discuss the band's business with anyone. This was typical of unconventional operations. I doubt that the band appears anywhere in SF documents or unit structure.
Regardless of how they did it, Dalton and Don were flown to Hong Kong with a blank check and told that Colonel Healy wanted an American band that was to bands what the Harley Davidson was to motor scooters. They returned with the best equipment money could buy. I got a set of Ludwig drums just like Ringo Star's. The guitars were Vox and the amplifiers were Stadium Super Beatles designed for outdoor concerts. Cranked all the way up, they'd blow a tank off the road.
We had echo chambers, fuzz and wa wa effect machines. Our PA sound system was state of the art. When the boys came back from Hong Kong it was like Christmas in March. We went nuts over our neat stuff. We were riding a hog on a highway with no cops and the gas was free.
Our next challenge was to play up to our equipment. We dedicated ourselves to perfecting our craft to the best of our abilities in the shortest amount of time. We wanted to give the guys on the line the very best the instruments and the musicians could offer. Many American performers toured Vietnam rear areas. Most gave their stylistic renditions of popular music. The equipment they brought to Vietnam was little better than the Special Services loaners we started with. These performers were always well-received, but the men wanted to hear the familiar songs that took them home, sung without an accent.
We agreed that authentic recreation was what they wanted--live American music, loud and clear. To that end, we became mimics of the popular bands of both country western and rock. We gathered the recordings and copied them beat for beat, note for note.
Dalton Kast did one hour of the best Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Charlie Pride I'd ever heard. Don Bemis was a dead ringer for Paul McCartney. We put together three hours of music--one hour of country, sandwiched between two hours of rock. We also became familiar with every piece of 50's' and 60's' music that might be requested. The most popular ones were the sounds that were playing when the guys were back in "The World." They were: Proud Mary, Purple Haze, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Fire, Smoke on the Water, Inna Godda Da Vida, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Yellow Ribbon, House of the Rising Sun, all of the Beatles and all of the country standards.
We had the use of the base theater for practice sessions; and, as our shows came together, we played before live audiences in the Nha Trang Clubs. Even in the first shows that were more live practice sessions than performances, everyone raved about our music. The GI's thought we were great; we thought we were good. The clubs were packed every night we performed. In all honesty, I was the least talented member of the group, and I wasn't bad, except when I sang Dock of the Bay.
We were asked by the lieutenant colonel to learn two Vietnamese numbers to add to our show. It was thought to be a nice gesture to the Vietnamese in our audiences. Since I spoke some Vietnamese, that job fell to me. My other task was to learn the lengthy drum solo from the Iron Butterfly's Inna Godda Da Vida beat for beat. I managed to do both before we went on the road, but I spent many hours playing records over, and over, and over again. I worked hard, but no harder than anyone else.
We had one week left to practice before our scheduled departure. We played the Officers Club in Nha Trang with Iron Mike in attendance for the first time. He was ecstatic with his combat band. With the "old man" we were a big hit. He was in a good mood anyway, because the siege on camps Dak Pek and Dak Seang had just been broken. For over one month the two camps north of Kontom near the Laos border were besieged by the NVA 2nd Division. Thousands had died. SF Mobile Strike Forces and B-52s broke the NVA's back. The camps were down but not out. They had survived several human wave assaults, B-52 air strikes, and continuous ground combat for weeks. They hung on tenaciously and survived. Though they weren't due to close in the near future, survival was cause for celebration.
The next morning, we were awakened early and told to get our shit. Half awake, we stumbled as a group into the lieutenant colonel's office. Dalton said, "What the hell's going on? We were supposed to have the morning off. We were playing till past midnight."
The lieutenant colonel smiled and said, "Iron Mike says you're ready, and he wants his band at Dak Seang on the next chopper. Need I say more?"
"Sir," Said Dalton, "From what I hear those camps were leveled. Do they even have generators? Electric guitars are real hard to hear unless you plug them into something."
"We understand. Look, the 2nd NVA is still in the hills licking their wounds. The camps are still standing and still being defended. What better way is there to say, 'up yours' than to bring in a live band and have a party under their noses. The beer, ice, and generators are already on the way. All they need now is a band. You call yourselves a combat band; here's your chance to prove it."
"Sir, we'll go get our shit!"
At noon, we were in Kontom. At one, we were in a low flying chopper snaking our way towards Dak Seang while F4 Phantom jets dropped napalm on the mountain ridge to our right. As we banked hard to the left to approach the camp's airstrip, 50 caliber machine guns raked the opposite hills. The chopper touched down (slid down, actually). A group of Yards ran out and roughly man-handled our precious gear off the chopper as we scrambled to the ditch alongside the battered runway. The chopper took off and we were left with a very confused welcoming party. The Yards had never seen band instruments. One unzipped a drum case and peered in at the pearl and chrome tom tom that had rolled to the ditch under the rotor wash. When he looked to me with a puzzled expression, I simply said, "Ludwig."
Dak Seang was everything we'd imagined and worse. Along with aircraft wreckage that littered the area, the scorched and battered earthworks, the B-52 insulted terrain, we were also assaulted with the stench of decaying bodies left for weeks in the sun. Bodies and pieces of bodies littered the jungle surrounding Dak Seang, but there was no time for sight seeing or smelling. We had a show to put on.
The A-team members of Dak Seang were in agreement with Iron Mike--it was party time. We all speculated as to what the enemy would do. With their hillside vantage, they were looking right down our throats. Some thought that just setting up for the show should bring the expected incoming rounds. Others said the enemy would wait until we started playing. Several thought the enemy would settle in and listen along with the camp defenders. Whatever the reaction, we had to set up and start playing to find out. The camp defenders simply looked on with an amused detachment as we worked to set up.
We chose the broad flat top of the medical bunker to set up our instruments. Each of us went about setting up our respective parts under the watchful eyes of friend and foe. As we unpacked drums, amplifiers, mike stands and cords, the Yards and American team members looked on from protected areas. The NVA watched from the hills.
Twenty minutes later, we were ready to start; and so far, no word from Chuck. As we were about to kick in with our lead-in song, Proud Mary, I felt ridiculous sitting in the open beside a twenty-four inch brass cymbal, shining in the afternoon sun. I just knew some enemy gunner had his cross hairs on my cymbals and was waiting for the downbeat to cut loose. The band's "legs" were a bit wobbly to say the least. When all was ready, Don Bemis turned to me and said, "Hell of a way to die, huh?...ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR..."
For whatever reason, the hills remained silent throughout the show. Eventually, the Yards and American team members came out of the bunkers and moved in on the stage. They were fascinated with the sounds we were making. The beer started flowing, and the defenders of Dak Seang had a party. Loud music echoed through the valley well into the night.
The next day, we were air lifted to the next valley and camp Dak Pek. Dak Pek was an unusual SF camp in that it sat on seven hills surrounded by mountains. The Americans occupied a hill to themselves, centrally located. The team at Dak Pek was glad to see any friendly face, but they were beat. They had had little sleep for weeks on end as the camp had been breached many times with a significant loss of life. They'd lost several American team members. We set up in the team house for a low key private party.
Afterwards, the band took up positions to relieve the tired defenders. Red and Pete took turns on radio watch. Dalton manned the tactical operations center. Bemis and I alternated on the 4.2 inch mortar, firing illumination rounds every fifteen minutes throughout the night. The team members got some much-needed rest that night, and the band learned what it meant to be a combat band. How many band members have ever had to do a four-hour gig, then man a mortar pit all night?
For five months, the band went from camp to camp. We traveled from the tip of the delta in the south, to the DMZ up north. We brought with us a little respite from war. Even our tired adversary seemed to appreciate the break, for they never interrupted a show with a show of their own. We were fired on coming into a camp, but only once when leaving.
At camp Ba Xoai (Ba Swi) in the delta, our show was interrupted by a B-52 strike. We stopped to watch the awesome display of firepower being vented on the mountains fronting the camp. It felt like a rolling earthquake with the sound of muffled thunder. When we departed the next day, the enemy fired a 51 caliber machine gun at our chopper. The fire came from the area of the bombardment. I suppose if you bomb your audience, you can't expect good reviews.
Visiting so many places over a five month period, the camps began to blend as one in my memory. Typically, we offered our services to the A-team commander to use us as he saw fit. Mostly that meant putting on two shows: one for the camp population, the other for the A-team. The show for the camp was a one hour affair featuring my Vietnamese songs, which were a big hit, mostly because of the novelty of seeing an American singing a popular Vietnamese song. Even the Yards liked it. The Yards liked the music with a strong jungle beat. Yards like "Inna Godda Da Vida."
One team commander asked us to set up in the nearby Montagnard village. He provided a portable generator. The curious villagers quietly watched us set up. We did not tune our instruments, wanting the first sounds they heard to be our opening. Proud Mary sent Yards scrambling for the trees. They slowly emerged and gathered near, wearing big smiles. Yards have a sense of humor as well as good taste in music.
In the team houses afterwards, we put on a more relaxed and informal show that often lasted long into the night. After one of our performances, the enemy could have easily overrun the camp with little difficulty, as the team was usually stone drunk. Being the only ones left standing after an all nighter, manning the important camp defenses fell to the band by index. Fortunately, we were never tested, and the worst that ever befell a team was a group hangover the next morning.
Before we began our tour, we speculated as to how the old-timers, the team sergeants, would take to rock and roll--"hippie music." They are a very conservative group, die-hard country fans. Early in our tour, while playing in a team house bunker, a grizzled old top sergeant stopped us at the beginning of Jumpin' Jack Flash. We thought he wanted us to turn the volume down, but we were as low as the amps would go.
He said, "The night before I left the states, my daughter was playing that song. I yelled upstairs for her to turn that shit down. Do me a favor, will ya? Turn that som bitch up all the way."
On a scale of ten, we were set between one and two. Even outdoors, we usually set the volume at six. Ten could knock birds from the sky. We tried to discourage him. He insisted. We cranked it up and resumed. Sand poured from the steel rafters; bottles and glasses danced across table tops; the other team members covered their ears, but the old sarge stood before us with a big smile. His daughter would have been proud.
When we played the larger, rear-area units, riots broke out from the drunken revelry as men under long periods of stress let off steam. Alcohol, firearms, and loud rock music are not the best of combinations. In the movie, The Blues Brothers, there is a scene where the band plays a country honkie tonk behind a chicken wire screen. That scene brought on a Vietnam flashback for me.
Many of our big base shows degenerated into madness as the men let it all hang out. We played the clubs at just about every big base. These were goodwill gestures by the SF "C" and "B" team commanders. Few knew who we were. We were billed simply as "An American Band." GIs had a hunger for real American band sounds, played loud and strong. They say music soothes the savage breast; ours never did. Brawls were common when men of different units mixed.
The civilian bands never played under these conditions. Females (singers, dancers, Go-Go girls and strippers) were almost a prerequisite for touring bands. The presence of any female tempered the crowd. Civilian bands were treated as special guests and security was high. Fights were rare and would stop a show.
With our band--having no women and being GIs--security was almost non-existent. The GIs, the commanders, and the MPs pretty-much let it all hang out. Fights were common and would not stop one of our shows. We played through fights. We played through riots. We even played through incoming. We stopped when the man in charge told us to stop, which was usually at the point where firearms might be brought into play.
In Can Tho, the SF sergeant major had to end the show which pissed off a drunk Sea Bee. He was then tossed out by the sergeant major. I walked away from my drums and headed for my bunk to get clear of the chaos. A short while later, the Sea Bees were in the room next to mine arguing among themselves. I was about to go find a quiet bunker to sleep in when the sound of a sub-machine gun firing a long burst came from their room. A crying wail followed.
I crawled outside and peered over the sandbag wall into their room. Standing just inside the door was a See Bee with a smoking grease gun still aimed at a writhing figure on a bottom bunk. The man on the bunk was the loud mouth from the club. He had six 45 caliber holes in him, but was still alive. I came up behind the gunman and took hold of the gun. He let it go. I unloaded it as a medic arrived to see about the wounded man. I don't know what happened to either of them. I returned to my bunk, and we left first thing in the morning.
At Kontom, home of CCC recon, a wild brawl and a general club destroying melee highlighted a stellar performance. At the sister base in Ban Me Tuot, home of CCS recon, beer was so deep on the concrete floor it made waves when people walked through it or fell in it. It was there that Red was almost electrocuted before the equipment shorted out from all the beer it had absorbed. CCS was like the bar scene from the "Blues Brothers" movie, except without the protective wire cage. Special Forces likes to party hard.
We lost Dalton in June; his time in-country was up. I was made the NCO in charge for our tour of I Corps. Red proved to be a competent country western singer, though he was no Dalton Kast. By the time we got to I Corps, we were the best combat rock n roll/country band in the world.
In the five months that we toured, we saw a side of the war that few knew. Both sides took a vacation from combat to hear us play music. I saw Americans, Vietnamese, and Montagnards standing shoulder to shoulder, smiling, laughing, and clapping, swinging to the beat of "hippie music." I saw a battle-hardened Green Beret crying like a baby over some silly song that was probably playing in the background at some not-so-silly time in his life. I saw an old Montagnard mouthing the words, "I'm proud to be an Oakie from Muscogie." When you've seen that, you've seen it all.
I've heard it said that war is hell, but that was said by a man who never served in a combat band.
I don't know the details, but Dalton Kast died in 1975. I last contacted Don Bemis in 1972. He was singing professionally. I haven't been able to locate Red or Pete. A reunion is in order. If the Beatles can do it minus one member, so can we.
Don and I returned for another tour with CCC recon at Kontum. We tried to turn in the band equipment, but nobody would receive it. The equipment wasn't on any supply system. No one had responsibility for it, and nobody wanted it in their supply system.
We took it to Kontum and locked it in a shed. It remaind there while we ran recon. When our time was up, we again tried to turn the stuff in. We contacted the supply officer in Nha Trang, a man who knew the band well. He said, "You earned it; take it home. If you don't, it will go to the Vietnamese."
We divided it and sent it home in our hold baggage. I traded my half for a 650 BSA chopper and did the Easy Rider scene for a year. Bemis put his to good use. At least it didn't fall into the hands of the Communist menace. That would have made the Vietnam War a worse tragedy. Thank God that didn't happen.
Copyright © 1994 by George "Sonny" Hoffman. All rights reserved.