August 07, 2014 at 4:30 PM
By MAJ(R) Tom Duckett, III (B Co, 1st BN, 1971)
During the month of November rumors of a stand-down sometime at the end of 1971 abounded throughout the Battalion. It was clear in the reports from the " World", radio and the Stars and Stripes that the effort in Vietnam was winding down. The real question among the troops of the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division was the when and how. Being aware that the 173rd Airborne Brigade had redeployed to Fort Campbell as a unit, but that other units had reallocated personnel to fill shortfalls in the units remaining in-country - with only short-timers getting to go back to the "World", led to constant discussion and debate within the companies still deployed in the field throughout northern I Corps. Tactically, the 506th had withdrawn units from operations around the A Shau valley and the highlands between the A Shau and Highway QL 9 in the north. Unit operations now centered in the lowlands from Firebase Jack and along the first ridgeline (Rocket Ridge) in the area of Firebase Gladiator and AO Mexico. For the troops that had patrolled deep into the mountains and valleys in search of the NVA throughout their tours of duty, this was a sure sign that something was changing.
December arrived with its incessant cold rain, sticky red mud and miserable nights out on the listening posts and ambush locations along the high-speed trails leading into the lowlands. It seemed as if the operational tempo for both the Battalion and the NVA had come to a standstill, with contacts between both elements in the field being limited to an occasional NVA trail-watcher or messenger. Meanwhile, the Battalion Headquarters had received a classified plan with the details of the stand-down. The Battalion Adjutant had been tasked to determine which of the members of the 506th were going to DEROS and those that were to be reassigned to units remaining in Vietnam. As it turned out, the latter was the largest group by far. Only a small handful would be returning to the "World". The Battalion Operations section was involved in planning the airmobile extraction of the units in the field with encoded orders to go out to the Companies via radio. The orders did go out around the evening of 14 December and the officers had the unenviable duty of informing their troops that most were to be transferred to other units in country. Part of the Battalion Adjutant's duties was to select a Color Detail and an OIC to carry the Battalion Colors back to Fort Campbell. In addition, the Detail was to transfer operational records as well as other historical items that encompassed the history of the Battalion back to its founding during World War II. The individuals selected for the Color Detail were among the lucky few with enough time in country to DEROS. The officer selected to be OIC to the Color Detail was 1LT Tom Duckett, assigned to B Company. His detail was to consist of eight solders selected from the Battalion, based on time in country and an exemplary service record. Once the stand-down had been completed, the Detail was to collect the Colors and other materials and then depart the country for Fort Campbell.
Around 18 December, orders went out from Operations for units to secure pick-up zones and prepare for extraction. Things began to go wrong from the start. The miserable wet weather could be tolerated but the real blow came when the helicopter units assigned to extract the units were tasked for a higher priority mission in support of the South Vietnamese during the day. Operations scrambled and were able to find enough birds to support extraction of some of the units located furthest from Camp Evans. Units close to Camp Evans were to move tactically into Camp Evans. Units began to fly in but the real concern in the Operations section was for the units marching in. As it would happen, one of the units moving towards Camp Evans came under fire. At least four Currahees were hit in the exchange before the unit was able to break contact and arrive at Camp Evans. These were the last causalities the Battalion suffered during the Vietnam War.
At about the same time the OIC of the Color Detail was gathering his men and the materials that were to be transported to Fort Campbell. Battalion Headquarters had gathered most of the materials and, according to the Adjutant, all that remained were for orders to be cut and receipt of the duty log from operations for that day. Shortly after, some members of Company A approached 1LT Duckett wondering if the small monument in memory of their fallen was to be removed and transported back to Fort Campbell. Not having been briefed on the monument, 1LT Duckett returned to Battalion Headquarters and asked the Adjutant about the monument. The Adjutant, in turn, consulted with the Battalion Commander. It was determined that the monument was too heavy to transport and would remain at Camp Evans for the time being - to eventually be transported back to Fort Campbell. 1LT Duckett returned to A Company and informed them of the decision, which was (understandably) not well received. When the colors and other materials were carried back to Fort Campbell, neither the monument nor the brass nameplates on it were carried back. It is extremely unlikely that the monument was ever recovered after the departure of the Battalion and the eventual fall of South Vietnam.
Early on the morning of 19 December, the Color Detail with the Battalion Colors and other materials departed Camp Evans for Da Nang via Chinook. Upon arrival in Da Nang, the Detail was met by Base Security and escorted to out-processing. In out-processing, the detail was asked to dispose of all souvenirs - except US uniform items and boonie caps. This brought personal baggage to virtually nothing. The detail was then escorted to a wired enclosure to await medical checks and a shower. Within eyesight of the enclosure a Bob Hope Christmas show was being conducted. Not having the chance to see something like that during their tour, members of the Detail were not at all happy with the viewing location assigned to them by chance - or ill luck. The only mitigating factor was that they were going home. Some members of the Detail decided to climb part of the way up the wire enclosure to get a better view of the show - others simply went to sleep muttering "it don't mean nothin'". Sometime before midnight, all of the out-processing had been completed and the Detail was escorted to an airliner. The Battalion Colors remained with the Detail on the aircraft while the other materials were placed in luggage. Upon takeoff, it was noted by the Detail that they were the only passengers on the aircraft. As the Detail were still in their jungle fatigues and fresh from the boonies, the aircraft crew tended to be less than hospitable. Some snacks (peanuts) and sodas were gathered for a meal and most of the Detail stretched out in the aisles to sleep. Upon arrival in Hawaii for refueling, the Detail had to remain on the aircraft. It was turning out to be a less than memorable homecoming.
Eventually, the aircraft landed in Seattle and the Detail was picked up and transported to Fort Lewis. Here the Color Detail was measured for uniforms and then allowed to shower and shave. After some more of the incessant Army paperwork, the Color Detail was given new Army Green uniforms, complete with all awards and decorations. This was followed by a chance to eat breakfast and as much as one wanted. Most did not eat much at all due to fatigue and the richness of the food. They were used to one meal a day of either LRRPS or C Rations. After breakfast the Color Detail boarded the bus for the trip back into Seattle and the flight to Nashville. Upon arrival in Nashville, the Color Detail was met by a bus from Fort Campbell and driven to the post. The bus parked next to the 101st Museum and the curator received all of the documents, historical items and the Colors. The Color Detail was informed that there would be a ceremony to turn over the Colors the next day. It was now late afternoon of the 22nd of December.
The Color Detail was provided billets and told where to eat. There were two things of note, the old WW II barracks were very cold for someone just days out of Vietnam and the scrounging of extra blankets became a top priority. Finally, members of the Color Detail noted that there were 173rd Airborne troops all over the place and not a single 101st Airborne patch to be seen. The morning of 23 December dawned clear and cold. As the Color Detail entered the Mess Hall, some remarks were exchanged between the Detail and members of the 173rd. This was soon followed up with an exchange of fists and food. Eventually the Officers present restored order and the troops having expressed their views on the relative virtues (or lack thereof) of both units, they departed for the ceremony under the watchful eyes of their Officers. Perhaps in an act of compassion, the ceremony conducted by Fort Campbell was brief and small. The colors were passed to members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the Color Detail departed immediately for Nashville. Throughout the trip back to the "World" members of the Color Detail had been unable to sit back, relax, talk or even get a beer. This finally happened in the Nashville Airport Lounge while waiting for departing flights. The OIC was the last to depart and as he watched each soldier leave for his flight, it was as if another chapter of Currahee history was slowly fading - man by man - into the mists of time ---- and so it was.