Maurice L. Brakeman

I was born Aug 1942 in Antioch, CA, near Oakland Bay and was preceded in birth by my older brother Errol, who was born in Newcastle, Wyoming the year before.
 
Our father had gone to the bay area to find work in the shipyards. After the Jap attack on Pearl Harbor, many of the ships damaged or sunk there, were towed to San Francisco and Oakland Bays to be repaired and re-commissioned. Dad enlisted in the Army in June 1944 and this, with the growing Jap threat to the area, caused Mom to move back to Wyoming with her parents. When the war ended in Aug 45, Dad was part of the Army of Occupied Japan. He was discharged in Jan 46 and met the family in Igloo, SD, an Army Ordnance Depot, where mother had a job. He was employed as a bus and truck driver. In 1948, he used the GI Bill and went to radio school. In 1949, the family moved to Gordon, NB, where he set up a radio repair shop and that is where I went to school and graduated.

I graduated from Gordon High School in 1960 and worked at carpentry until Mar of 1961, when I enlisted in the Army for three years. My brother enlisted shortly after I did. The US Army is a way of life in our family, so it was not a big decision, it was expected. My Grandfather was in WW I, 4 of mom’s 5 brothers were Army, 2 in WWII, one in Korea, and the youngest in Viet Nam. The oldest one couldn’t enlist because he only had one good eye. One eye was blinded when a cartridge discharged while being loaded.

I took basic at Ft. Riley, KS and Signal AIT at Ft. Ord, CA. I finished AIT with an MOS of Field Wireman/Pole Lineman. We also learned how to drive trucks. After graduation, a lot of us who had Far East options on enlistment, went to the overseas replacement center at Oakland Army Terminal. After an eternity, we all loaded onto a troop ship and spent 5 days getting to Hawaii.

I was assigned to Commo Plt, HHQ Co, 27th Inf Bde (Wolfhounds), 25th Inf Div, at Schofield Bks. They didn’t need any more wiremen so they sent me to the Div signal school and made me a radio operator. I was assigned to that platoon for the rest of my 3 yr hitch, with a couple of exceptions. In 1962, the Wolfhounds went on a SEATO exercise to Thailand where I got my first taste of Far East culture. We were there for 5 months at the request of the King and Queen. During this time, I had a chance to replace the jeep driver of the Bde CO. He was Col William A. (Bulldog) McKean. A great CO and later to command the 5th SFG in Viet Nam for a year. He was an old airborne troop from WWII.

In mid 63, the division started sending volunteer “Shotgun” platoons to Viet Nam for 3 mos TDYs. They supported the 52nd Avn Bde which did not have door gunners as part of their TDA/TOE. The volunteers were supposed to come from the ‘line’ companies. I griped and moaned until the Colonel put me on the 2nd bunch to go. I learned to shoot the A6 and M60 MGs in training before we went to Nam. Our platoon replaced the one at Camp Holloway at Pleiku, home of the 119th Avn Co. We were there from Sep to Dec 63, during which time Pres John Kennedy was assassinated and SVN Pres Nhu was also killed and we didn’t know if we would be run out of country or not. During this short 3 months, (they wouldn’t let you extend), I saw more dead people, as a result of combat, than I did my other 3 trips to VN. I mention this because later on in my career, I was told by an SF troop in Project Delta, that my 3 months as a door gunner didn’t count as combat time because I was a ‘leg’ and wasn’t on the ground with SF. I’m glad this individual was a loud mouthed exception.

Footnote:  During this assignment, I earned 3 Air Medals. I am more proud of these than any other medal I received in my Army career; maybe because I never earned a valorous award.  These AMs were awarded at a time when a man had to be assigned to an aviation unit, be on flight status and drawing flight pay, and be a member of a crew. This other criteria also had to be met, ie; 25 hours of flight time, plus 25 CS-1 missions. Missions were classified as Combat Support 1, 2, or 3. CS-2 & 3 were 'ash and trash'. CS-1 was a mission in direct support of ground forces; either inserting or extracting them from enemy held areas, and/or supporting them with ARA fire. After this assignment, I never applied for another Air Medal, even though I flew a lot of hours during later assignments.  

This first voluntary assignment also was my first contact with SF personnel. We flew to many SF A camps in II Corps, picked up wounded, delivered supplies, flew in replacements, etc. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of week-ends at the camp at Duc Co. MSG George Manual was the Team Sgt. The team was TDY from the 7th Grp. I liked them so well and learned enough about SF that I wanted to be one of them.

When the platoon got back to Hawaii, the Bde was preparing to go to Okinawa on Exercise ‘Quick Release’. I was getting short and had to talk fast in order to go with them. The 1st SFG was the aggressors. Again I had a chance to see SF in action and it just reinforced my opinion that they were the best our Army had. Our tent camp was set up just off the end of Yamatan DZ and the 1st was conducting a jump school. Watching them jump from C-130s while we were standing in breakfast chow line encouraged me to want to do that too. That was in Feb 64. I mustered out in Mar 64 and went home. Got a job and met my first wife in my home town. I re-enlisted after 86 days for Airborne and Special Forces. Because I went back in before the 90 day cut off, I retained my rank of SP/4. I graduated from jump school 4 Sep 1964, went home, got married, and we drove to Ft. Bragg. My weapons class had two other men in it whom I was destined to meet again; SSG Walter Simpson and SSG George Brierley, both Korean vets.

I was the only one in my class who got orders for the 10th Grp in Bad Toelz. I decided to go because my wife was pregnant and I might not get another chance at Germany. There were lots of guys trying to ‘buy’ my orders. We got to the 10th in April 65, I was assigned to B Co, ODA-17, at Prinz Heinrich Kaserne at Lenggries. The Tm Sgt was an old WWII Marine; MSG John T. Edmunds. A finer SF soldier never lived. He was an old White Star vet also.

He told me in order to be permanently assigned to the team and since I had not yet attended an NCO Academy, I should go to the 7th Army NCO Academy at Bad Toelz. This Academy was considered the toughest in the Army and I had my misgivings. John also told me if I graduated with honors, I would make Sgt E-5 on my graduation day. I volunteered, graduated, and on that day I was made E-5 ‘Buck’ Sgt. I was the only SF student in a class of over 200. I was the proudest young NCO in the Army.

I stayed with B. Co. for 18 months of a 3 year tour. During this time I made E-6, my team attended small boat training in Italy, I learned how to snow ski, went on two survival exercises in England with the 22nd SAS, and instructed on the weapons committee. All in all it was a very good 18 months. But I was getting anxious to get back into the war. Lots of guys were getting orders for VN and the 10th had to down size. We weren’t getting replacements, so the Co’s broke up the lower number ODAs and reassigned the men to higher numbered teams. Late in 1966, I went to ODA 19, who’s Tm Sgt was MSG Calvin Thomas, another great NCO.

I need to tell the amazing story about our commo supervisor on ODA 17, SFC Bob Charest. He is still a very good friend of mine today.

In Nov of 1963, our chopper was flying back to Pleiku from an A Camp way down south and we flew over the Camp at Cheo Reo. We got a call asking us if we would pick up a wounded advisor. Naturally, we landed and picked up a litter casualty, unconscious, heavily bandaged, with IV drip, and covered with a blanket. All the way back to the B Team at Pleiku, I watched this guy’s face. He looked dead; very pale and obviously very bad shape. He’d been shot 3 times; in the chest, abdomen, and leg. I didn’t think he’d make it. I never knew his name or if he had lived. We dropped him off and that was that. I had wondered about that guy many times and his face was stuck in my memory.

The first day I walked into ODA-17s team room, John Edmunds was introducing me to the team and he got to the Sr Radio Operator, SFC Bob Charest. I was shocked but I had to be sure. “Were you in Nam in 63?” Yes. “Were you on the team at Cheo Reo and wounded in Nov?” Yes. It was him ! We were both amazed at how small a world it is. He had no recollection of me, of course, but we became good buddies in a second.

I had put in my papers for a VN assignment and in Dec 66, I and the family flew home in time for Christmas. I arrived at 5th SFG Hq in early Jan 67. I had heard about Project Delta, B-52 and that MSG Tom Stamper was a leading NCO there. Tom had been in my company in Germany and he was well liked and respected. I didn’t know what the Project did but it was supposed to be dangerous as hell, so being a young hard charging SF troop, I volunteered. When I got there, I was assigned to Recon section and was surprised to see SSG Simpson and SSG Brierley there also.

It is a known fact that, at the time, there was a clique in Recon and if you didn’t laugh at the right jokes or suck up to the right people, new guys were ‘voted’ out by a self appointed kangaroo court, consisting of a few guys who considered themselves ‘experts’ in recon. The new men were sent packing out of the project or to another section. All this was unknown by the newbie and even before he went to an FOB. I didn’t pass the vote but SFC Joe Markham saved me. He came and told me about it. He said everyone deserved a chance to prove himself first. I was very grateful and swore to myself to prove I could do the job and justify his faith in me. The man who seemed to be running this ‘court’, later became a good friend and admitted to me he had been wrong.

I loved the Project and the people in it. I understood the importance of the mission and put my heart into it. FOBs followed, like Kham Duc, An Lao, and Hue Phu Bai. It was on a recon just south of the Ashau with George Brierley that I was hurt on insertion. We jumped approx 15 feet onto a steep hillside. I landed on a stump of a large punji stake or growing bamboo; still don’t know which. Luckily, it had been cut off close to the ground by the rotor blades. It dead centered my rectum and pinned me to the hill. I couldn’t get up so the tail gunner pulled me off of it. The hole 1 ship came back and dropped the 30’ ladder. I still had all my gear and I climbed to the skid but couldn’t pull myself in and I was too weak to let go long enough to snap link myself to a rung. The crew chief came to the starboard side and pulled me in. He saved my life and I never saw him again, but I knew his last name, rank, and his face, and after all these years, I finally found him in Wisconsin, last year, but that is another story.

My initial surgery was at the Marine aid station at Phu Bai airstrip. Then to Da Nang and on to the States. I spent 4½ months at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Aurora, CO. During this time, Jay Graves and Mark Strick stopped to visit me on their way home on extension leaves. I will always be thankful to them. My oldest son was born while I was on convalescent leave at home. The docs put me back together well enough that I could re-enlist.

Thanks to Mrs A, I went to Spanish language school at DLIEC and was assigned to the 8th SFG in Panama. I was lucky and got the team that Joe Singh had. Joe was a good team sgt. and a recent recon alumni of Project Delta. I stayed in Panama 9 most of the tour as an instructor at the USARSO NCO Academy and instructed in land nav, compass, and survival. While there, I also made SFC E-7. My first wife went off the deep end in Panama and I had to go back to the states on a compassionate reassignment.

I took my two children to my folks in Nebraska and reported in to Ft. Carson. I was assigned to a leg Armored Cav outfit but never did see it. While in-processing, the personnel NCO told me I could go to an airborne outfit that had just been assigned to the post. It had first priority on Abn qualified troops. That was the best news I’d heard in a long time. I reported to the newly designated B Co, 75th Rangers. The acting 1st Sgt was an SFC Attaway and was an old SF troop on his way back to Viet Nam. I took a recon platoon as Platoon Sgt and really enjoyed it. Then Attaway left and since I was the ranking E-7 in the company, I took over as acting 1st Sgt for the rest of my 9 mos there. The company was originally C Co, 58th Lrrp Bn, in Mainz, Germany, but was re-forged to the States. They still wore the old Bn DI (crest) and 7th Corps patch w/Abn tab. (See photo below). I had already requested assignment back to 5th SFG, so as soon as my divorce was final in Jan 70 and a E-8 MSG came in to replace me, I was on my way back to VN.

I arrived back in country in Feb 70 and was in processing at 5th SFG when I heard the Project was at their FOB in Camp Bunard, in 3 Corps. I got on the radio and talked to MSG Robinette, who I knew from 67 in B-52. He got hold of the Grp SGM and ‘persuaded’ him that I didn’t need to go to the COC course on Hon Tre and that he needed me at Bunard ASAP. So I was on my way; back to a job I knew, with men I trusted with my life, doing a job I believed in and knew was vital to the war effort. Like so many of the guys I knew from before, I was shaking the dice again. It had become a gambling game.

At Bunard, I met Jay Graves again and some other guys I had only heard stories about, to include St. Laurent, Joe Alderman, Gary Nichols, and Sammy Hernandez. The operation progressed around the area of the Song Dong Nai, a river with many ‘ox-bows’ running basically through flat terrain with a few low hills. Because of it’s shape on the map, often referred to as the “big and little penis” area. I reconned with Don Rodgers and several times with Gary Reagan.

When we finished at Bunard, the Project went back to Mai Loc in I Corps They had been at Mai Loc the year before, so it was familiar ground to them. By now, it was clear that the Project’s days were numbered. My last recon out of Mai Loc was with Roy Sprouse and it was the last recon of Delta’s history. I think there were a couple of short Ranger operations after that. We got the word that Project Delta was closing out. We would go back to Nha Trang and phase out. The men would be re-assigned to other units. Most of them that had time left went to SOG.

I went to the 5th Mobile Strike Force, B-55, in Nha Trang. The last 8 months of my tour was with them, but their days were also numbered. I took over 4th Co, 2nd Bn, A-504 under Cpt Frank McNutt. He was killed, along with a couple of ‘yards’, later on an operation for the Marine Corps. Cpt “Bucky” Burruss had 1st Bn, A-503. He and Frank were the best of buddies.

All operations ceased by Nov and the yards were dispersed to ARVN units, mostly Rangers, some to RFPF units in the hills at what used to be ‘A’ camps. Our war was winding down. The politicians were cutting their losses, turning their backs, and tucking their tails on Viet Nam. They called it “Vietnamization” of the war. We all knew it was a joke.

I went home in Feb 71. I had gotten remarried on a leave stateside during my time with B-55 and now just wanted to spend some time with my family. I got an assignment as an advisor to C Co., 19th SFG (NG) in Missoula, Mt. I stayed there 3½ years. I loved Montana and that was the longest I had stayed in one assignment since I had been in the Army. I had maintained contact with a buddy of mine from the Mike Force, SFC Johnson Clark. He had wrangled an assignment to JCRC (Joint Casualty Resolution Center) in Thailand and wanted me to try it. Note: The field teams of JCRC were all SF, even though there were to be no SF in SEA according to the Paris Peace Accords, so they couldn’t wear the green beret.

By then, I was getting itchy feet and I put in for it. They were in the process of phasing down too so my chances were slim but lo and behold, I got it. I got to NKP in Nov 74. JCRC had their buildings on the airbase at Nakhon Phanom, which had been a SOG launch site during the war. In Dec, we packed up and moved south on the coast to an Army camp on the beach called Samae San. We did some training but no actual operations were conducted. In early Feb of 75, the field team Cmdr, LTC Sully Fontaine, approached me about going to JCRC’s office in Saigon to work with the SF ‘desk officers’, who were working out of the consulates in the 4 Corps areas. They wanted someone with combat experience, who could work with the indigenous to recruit them to go to crash/burial sites and take pictures and snoop around. All this was to aid in the recovery of KIAs (BNR-body not recovered) and resolve some MIA listings. It was a worthwhile endeavor and I felt privileged, so naturally I volunteered to go. We only wore uniforms one day a week.

The office was located in the DAO building (pentagon east) and compound next to Ton Son Nhut air base. I started working with an Air Force MSG on the files the office had, which were a complete mess. During this time, I had a chance to go on the regular Friday, 4 party, C-130 flight to Hanoi. This was an interesting trip and one I never regretted but it was tough to be anything but hostile to them. Right after that, the NVA made their push to take over the South and were successful beyond their wildest dreams. Without American units and advisors to ARVN units, discipline collapsed, morale dropped to rock bottom, and panic set in. The whole population was trying to get to Saigon, one way or another and the ARVN soldiers and Marines would kill any civilians who got in their way. No one knows how many refugees were killed by soldiers in Da Nang. They ran over them with tanks trying to get to the few boats headed south. It was a nightmare of epic proportions.

This was when I met Cpt George Petrie, a Son Tay raider, who had left 4 Corps and came to the office in Saigon. We all knew it was just a matter of time before the ‘bad guys’ had it all and we would have to evacuate Saigon. The ambassador and his staff had their collective heads in the sand and wouldn’t believe it. DAO Cmdr, Gen Smith, decided to take matters in his own hands and prepare for the worst without the knowledge of the civilian population. He appointed Cpt Petrie to carry out a plan. George asked me to help him, along with an American warden of Saigon. On a Sunday, we surveyed the rooftops of every hotel housing Americans. It was tough because we couldn’t tell the occupants what we were doing. I was the photographer. This was to prepare for the helicopter evacuation of US citizens and ‘friendlies’. We knew, when the time came, the streets would be impassable and ARVN troops would be shooting Americans trying to escape. The rest is history. There have been documentaries, movies made, and books written about that evacuation, but there was one incident that there was not much said about in the news. That was the crash of the so called ‘baby lift’ C5A. I saw George Petrie again at SOAR 2003 and he said that he was going to write a book about the evacuation and the crash.

There was a group of women who worked at the DAO compound, whose offices were closing and some other female dependants who were going home. There were about 30 of them. George and I were detailed to help them clear the compound and get on the flight. We split them into 2 groups and we each sheparded a group through the clearing process. When we got them to the Galaxy, it was being loaded with over 200 babies from a Catholic orphanage. They were just sat on the floor in rows in front of a huge pile of Pampers. A couple of them were in incubators in the upper floor with a couple of nurses. 90% of them were Amerasian. Our women were strapped into seats against the fuselage on either side.

It took off without incident but at about 10,000 ft over the South China Sea and after pressurization, the clam shell rear doors blew off sucking the crew chief out and damaging one of the stabilizers. The pilot turned around and tried to make it back to Ton Son Nhut. He was losing control and altitude fast. At ground level, the landing gear hit a huge dike and were torn off which started the shredding of the bottom of the fuselage. Wreckage and bodies were burned and strewn for about two miles in rice paddies and shell craters.

George called me and asked me to go with him to try and aid with rescue and identify remains. We caught a Huey out to the site and started the process. One thing that made the job doubly difficult, was that local ARVN units had swooped down on the site and stripped all the bodies of valuables. Rings, watches, necklaces, any kind of jewelry was gone. Purses had been emptied. All ID was gone. We didn’t dare try and stop them. We continued until dark and went back out the next morning and picked up pieces all day.

Of the women we put on the bird, an 18 year old daughter and another girl dependant about 7 years old survived without a scratch. A couple of babies survived because they were in incubators in the cupalo on top. Most of the crew survived and a nurse or two. At the end of the second day, I was pretty much out of commission. I and a guy who had flown in from CIL Thai had been sifting through craters looking for bodies and the water in them was covered with red hydraulic fluid. We didn’t know it but that stuff is highly caustic. We started burning from the waist down and blistering. By the next day, all my skin had peeled off from my waist down. To this day, I have not heard whether the crash was caused by sabotage or not.

To make a long story shorter, I left 8 days before the NVA raised their flag at our Embassy. George stayed until the very end and then flew out to one of the carriers. As I flew out of Ton Son Nhut back to Thailand my mind was numb. All the years I and my buddies had spent in this country fighting for what we believed in was for naught. What had we gained? What good had we done the South Vietnamese? How many universities and colleges or hospitals in America could have been built with the billions spent there?

Our mission as a unit was over and when Saigon and Phnom Penh fell, thousands of refugees fled to Thailand. Some flew aircraft right to Utapao AFB just up the road from Camp Samae San. Our unit set up a refugee camp at Utapao and I spent the rest of my tour working at the camp. I made MSG E-8 that summer and took over as the Field Team NCOIC. I finished my year in Thailand and went home for Christmas of 75.

The 10th SFG in Bad Toelz had slots available so I and the family PCS’d to DLI in Monterey, CA for German language school. We had quarters at Ft. Ord. It was a good six months that was very enjoyable. I now had three children and my last son was on the way. Matthew was born right after getting to Bad Toelz.

I had always wanted a team of my own and the only team available was ODA-7, the SADM team. I didn’t like the nuclear surety program but there was no choice. I had the team for about a year and a half. The mission of the team required that we have HALO capability. None of us were HALO qualified. We started training. On my 4th jump, I accidentally activated my reserve at terminal, trying to reach the main’s red ball handle, which had come loose from the main lift web and was flapping behind me. The opening shock about broke me in two and really screwed up my back. I was in the hospital for a few days until the feeling came back to my legs and I could walk again. Some pieces were broken off the spine. As a result, I wound up at a desk in the Group S-3 until I left the 10th in July of 79. When I left Germany, ODA-7 still had not become HALO qualified.

I got a job in the ROTC Dept at the University of Idaho in Moscow. I was the Opn NCO and had a great SGM and CO. SGM John Shearin was an old SF type. He had just made E-9 and he spent another 2 years in so he could retire at that grade. I could have taken his slot but I had back surgery to remove a herniated disc, I couldn’t jump any more, so I couldn’t hold a regular SF job. I had my 20+ in and decided to hang it up. I officially retired on 1 Aug 1981.

My years in the Army and especially my time with SF in Project Delta were the best, most memorable, defining years of my life.

I went on to do many other things. I took the GI Bill and went back to school and graduated from college with a BA in Ind Tech and a minor in Earth Science in 1986, worked as a sawyer for a gypo logger for a summer, then lived and worked in the mountains of Montana in the timber industry for over 2 years. Then to Kwajalein Atoll on construction of missile sites for 6 months. I worked for Western Geophysical in the middle east in 90 and 91. The Gulf War started when I was in Abu Dhabi. Went back stateside in June 91. Worked in Deadwood casinos as a cashier for a while. In Apr 96 I went back to work for Western Geo in Kuwait. After almost 2 years I fought to be transferred because of a developed hatred for oil rich Arabs. I was transferred to the Latin American Division and worked in Trinidad, where I met my last wife. Had a blow up with the boss there and went to Brunei for 2 months to ‘cool off’. I then went to Ecuador where we were run out of the upper Amazon by a tribe of Indians called the Waranya, so I wound up on a crew in Peru on the upper Amazon for about 3 months. When that job was finished, the company wanted to send me to the North Slope of Alaska. I declined and flew to Trinidad, picked up my gal and flew home. I settled in Hot Springs, SD, where I am now, married and divorced my last wife within a year. I live a peaceful life now with my two cats, work on my place, build wood projects in my shop, shoot and reload for my beloved guns, and get my deer in the fall. Sometimes I go fishing.

My highlight of the year is when I go to Vegas and see my buddies from Project Delta again.
 

Maurice Brakeman Photo Collection: 1967 and 1970
 

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