Some things you just do
Thomas Calabrese — During the Tet Offensive, a small and strategic Special Forces camp was the target of the North Vietnamese’s first use of armor in the Vietnam War. This occurred on February 7, 1968. Sergeant First Class Roy Kelly had been in the Army for seven years and started in regular infantry before becoming an airborne ranger then qualifying to be a Green Beret. He was on his third combat tour and was assigned to Detachment A-Team 101, Charlie Company, 5th Special Forces Group at Lang Vei in the Quang Tri Province. This small outpost was located five miles west of Khe Sanh.
Unlike many combat veterans who ended in up war because of a twist of fate or bad timing, Roy’s background was an excellent predictor of why he was at Lang Vei at this crucial and deadly time in the Vietnam War. He was raised in the agricultural community of Fallbrook, California where his parents’ home was within walking distance to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. After graduating from Fallbrook High School, Roy considered joining the Marines and following in his father’s footsteps who retired as a Colonel after serving in World War II and Korea, but chose to join the Army instead.
Growing up with his two younger brothers, Bill and Mike, Roy learned from his father that it took sacrifice, commitment and courage to be an honorable man. His father was the kind of man who never asked anyone to do something that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do himself. He never pushed his beliefs on his sons and always listened to their opinions. He showed them his way of doing things then gave them different options, but in the end he let them make their own decisions. Robert Kelly had been in enough life and death situations to realize that sometimes the only thing that separated survivors from victims was being able to deal with failures and mistakes and keep on fighting. He wanted his sons to be independent and self- sufficient, but most of all, he wanted them to be prepared so when they were tested, they would be up to the task.
While he couldn’t be prouder of his three boys with Roy being in Special Forces, Bill an artillery officer in the Marine Corps and Mike a fighter pilot in the Navy, it was a mixed blessing at best. All three of his sons were in harm’s way and Robert Kelly couldn’t help but feel responsible for placing them in danger. His wife, Barbara was the poster woman for what a military wife and mother should be and on the outside she was strong and supportive, but in her heart she desperately wanted her sons to be at home. When she found out that her younger boys would be joining their older brother in Vietnam, there was nothing she could do except pray.
Roy knew that while his father had immense influence on his decision making process, there was nothing he could have said that would have convinced him to join the military if he didn’t believe it was the right thing for him to do. Roy was here in Vietnam because this is where he felt that he was needed most. Of all the things that he remembered about his father’s sayings and quips, and there were many, the one that was at the top of the list for him was that whenever his father knew the answer before the question was even asked or was prepared before an incident happened, his father would smile knowingly, ‘Some things you just know.’
“I don’t understand?” Roy asked for clarification.
“”You will in time; just remember that instinct is just knowledge and experience intersecting,” Robert said.
Roy walked the inner perimeter of the camp checking the concertina wire with several of his men by his side. He would occasionally point out areas that he wanted reinforced and where to place additional claymore mines while his men exchanged puzzled glances.
Sergeant Johnson asked what everyone was thinking, “Why did you pick these particular areas?
Roy shrugged, “Some things you just know.”
Three nights later, North Vietnamese sappers hit exactly where Roy had his men reinforce security. The enemy was repelled and when morning came, a dozen dead bodies were impaled upon the newly installed wire. Two days later, Roy was on patrol with five fellow Green Berets and twenty-three Montagnard troops in an area southwest of the camp. When they came to a fork in the trail on their way back to Lang Vei, Roy told the point man to go left. When one of his fellow Green Berets, Sergeant Willoughby looked at the map he said to Roy, “This way is five clicks longer.” (a click is 1000 meters) “If we go this way, we’ll be lucky to make it back before dark. What’s wrong with the other trail? We haven’t seen any NVA or VC in over a week. You got Intel that I don’t know about?”
“Some things you just know,” Roy replied simply.
When the patrol had gone 1500 meters, Roy ordered his men, “Time to turn around!”
“What the hell!” Sergeant Ingram cursed under his breath, but knew better than to question Roy in the field.
When they walked back a thousand meters, Roy ordered, “Get off the trail and no talking!”
Fifteen minutes passed and the Americans and Montagnards were getting restless when they heard noises coming from up the trail. Roy gave the standard hand signal to let his men know that it was time to prepare for combat. Forty heavily armed North Vietnamese soldiers who had been waiting to ambush the Green Berets on the other trail were now about to be caught as they returned to their camp. When Roy opened fire, his men followed suit and the enemy was caught completely off guard.
As the Green Berets searched the dead bodies for valuable Intel, Sergeant Willoughby approached, “Are you going to tell me how you knew that Charlie was coming this way?”
Roy smiled, walked off and never discussed the issue again. Lieutenant Bill Kelly was an artillery officer assigned to Khe Sanh combat outpost and even though he was only five miles away from his older brother, the area was so dangerous that the only way to travel between the two camps was by helicopter. Even that mode of transportation was not without extreme peril since everything that flew into Khe Sanh drew fire from North Vietnamese gunners.
Roy got permission from his commanding officer to take a couple of days off so he hitched a ride on a helicopter gunship. The veteran pilot skimmed over the countryside, sometimes so low over the treetops that Roy could almost feel the branches touching his backside. As soon as they reached Khe Sanh, Roy jumped out when the chopper descended to five feet and then it was gone in less than three seconds. It had been three months since the two brothers had seen each other and the conversation invariably turned to their missing brother as they took shelter in a bunker during an enemy artillery barrage.
“I wonder how Mike is doing on the Enterprise?” Bill asked.
“Staying dry and warm and eating good food,” Roy guessed.
“I know the communication officer, there’s a slim chance he can reach the Enterprise. Want to give it a try?” Bill asked
When the artillery barrage slowed down, both brothers sprinted to the communication bunker and after several attempts, the radio operator was able to contact the Navy aircraft carrier that was located ten miles off shore. The connection had a lot of static and interference, but the Kelly brothers agreed to schedule their R&R together. Since naval aviators’ deployment is much shorter than ground troops, Roy suggested that they should go to Bangkok in two months before Mike’s squadron returned to San Diego.
Roy returned to his camp and got back into his normal routine without so much as a hiccup. He was asleep in his rack just after midnight on February 7, 1968, when the lead elements of 400 ground troops of the 66th NVA regiment supported by 11 Soviet-made PT76 tanks attempted to breech Lang Vei’s outer perimeter. As soon as Roy heard an out of the place sound, he was up and outside his bunker. Flares illuminated the perimeter and when Roy saw the tanks, he knew that things had changed in this war, and not for the better. This was his third tour, but the first time that he saw the enemy using armor and he was going to have to come up with a new defense strategy in a hurry. He called to Sergeant Willoughby, “Radio Khe Sanh and get artillery support. We’re going to need air support too. GO!”
The tanks began firing at the camp as they rolled through the wire and the claymore mines had no effect on them. The NVA soldiers lined up behind each tank to shield themselves from the small arms fire of the Green Berets and Montagnards. When Captain Kelly got the fire order that Lang Vei was under attack, he immediately went to his post and got his men firing 105 Howitizers and the rounds began dropping along the perimeter. Roy stayed on the radio and adjusted the rounds as close as he could without endangering his own men, then contacted battalion headquarters, “We have tanks in our wire!”
Roy requested reinforcements from 26th Marines at Khe Sanh but he was turned down because the commanders at Khe Sanh felt that any attempt to reinforce via Highway 9 would be ambushed. They also believed that a heliborne assault would be too dangerous because it was dark and the North Vietnamese had armor. None of this was good news to the men at Lang Vei.
For three hours, the Green Berets and Montagnards fought valiantly, but it was only a matter of time before they were overrun so Roy reluctantly gave the order, “Retreat!” Dozens of men escaped through the designated path of the mine field while Roy and several Green Berets hunkered down and used light anti–tank weapons and machine guns to provide cover.
Just before sunrise, Lieutenant Commander Mike ‘Howler’ Kelly launched off the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise in his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, destination Lang Vei. Roy ordered the remaining fellow Green Berets to leave then reassured them, “I’m right behind you!”
After everyone had gone, Roy realized that he had waited too long and now he was surrounded. He called for the artillery to move closer and just when a tank was ready to roll over his position, an artillery shell hit it and it exploded, taking out a dozen NVA soldiers in the process. The smart thing to do would have been to take the opportunity to save himself, but just as he was ready to sprint away, he heard the cries of wounded Sergeant Ingram, “Help me!” and saw his comrade waving to him from a bunker.
Roy did not hesitate to change his plan from retreat to attack. He took two sticks of C-4 explosives and inserted a blasting cap in each one. From past experience, Roy knew from the length of the detonator cord that he had about 15 seconds. He took off at a full sprint as small arms fire nipped at his heels. When he got close enough, Roy tossed the explosives toward an approaching tank in quick succession, one landed on the turret, while the other went under its threads. When the charges exploded the tank was destroyed. Roy reached Sergeant Ingram and saw that he was shot in the abdomen and needed immediate medical attention. He put him on his back and tried to make his escape, but that seemed very unlikely since everywhere Roy looked there were North Vietnamese soldiers.
It was just after dawn and when Mike Kelly reached Lang Vei; he had a clear view of the attacking enemy. He circled around and came in with the sun to his back and dropped two napalm bombs directly on top of a group of NVA soldiers and they were engulfed in flames. Roy sighed in relief and thanked the pilot, not knowing it was his brother for his timely arrival. He took this as a gift from above to make his escape and when he got outside the perimeter a medic was ready to render life-saving aid to Sergeant Ingram. After dropping two more bombs, Mike Kelly began strafing the enemy with deadly machine gun fire that kept the NVA soldiers from following the retreating Americans. Roy found a concealed position in the dense foliage with a radioman and directed artillery, air strikes while calling in medivac choppers for the wounded.
With the North Vietnamese were being battered and forced to take over, Roy organized a counter attack with the five remaining Green Berets and fifty Montagnards. It was brutal fighting, hand to hand in some cases and it took five attempts before the North Vietnamese soldiers were finally pushed off Lang Vei. It could not have happened if it wasn’t for the three Kelly brothers.
The subject of the attack at Lang Vei casually came up while the Kelly brothers sat in the Danang Airport waiting for their flight to Bangkok. They mutually agreed to focus on the primary mission at hand, which was to forget the war for the next five days.
It was eighteen months later and the entire Kelly family was in attendance in the rose garden at the White House when President Johnson awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant First Class Roy Kelly for his heroic actions at Lang Vei. When the ceremony was over, Retired Colonel Robert Kelly walked through the crowd, placed his hand on about Roy’s shoulder and was just about to ask him several specific decisions about the epic battle, “Why did you…
Roy flashed a big smile and responded before his father could continue, “Some things you just know and some things you just do.”