Saturday afternoon last August I was working in the yard when my wife brought
the cordless phone out the front door. The fellow on the other end said:
"Mr. DeLong, you don't know me, but I was going through some things of
my dad's last week, and I came across a letter you sent to our family."
I said: "I know who you are. You're Tom Kelly's brother." I sent
a letter to his family from Vietnam in 1970. I was the last one to see
Tom Kelly alive.
was the FO with our battalion advisory team at the battle of Dak Seang
in April 1970. There were four of us with the 1st BN 42nd RGT ARVN.
Tom and his RTO made six. Since the beginning of April 1970 the Dak
Seang Special Forces Camp had been under siege by elements of the 28th
NVA RGT, supported by the 40th NVA Artillery RGT. Our battalion was
inserted in a helicopter assault just southeast of the camp on April 12,
1970. After about five days of fighting, the battalion moved to a
hilltop a klick north of the SF camp and was attempting to push further
north with no success. For the next six days, the 1st BN 42d RGT
was surrounded on that hill. That's when I met Tom. Up to that
point, I had been with the battalion's lead company, while Tom stayed with
the battalion commander and my boss, MAJ Noll. But when we were no
longer able to move, all units were pulled back into a rough perimeter
on the hilltop. Then we hunkered down and started calling in artillery
and air support morning, noon and night.
I became friends during the six longest days of our lives.
will never forget the first time I laid eyes on him. It was the morning
of April 13th. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground next to
his RTO, studying a folded map. He had a red bandana around his forehead,
almost resting on the top of his glasses, and he looked over at me with
this look of utter calm and acknowledged me with his open palm. I
had not yet met him. I was rushing back to the lead company after
running out to a resupply helicopter to hand the door gunner a letter to
mail for me. I do not recall seeing him again until dusk on April
18th, when our lead company returned to the battalion hilltop perimeter.
The next day, Tom helped me dig in, between mortar attacks, during which
we crouched together in his hole counting down the rounds. During
a break, we brewed up my last packet of hot cocoa in a canteen cup, but
before we could sample it, the NVA began to mortar us again. We scrambled
into his hole, and eased the canteen cup back and forth between us, trading
sips. Then one round exploded nearby and dislodged an egg-sized chunk
of red clay from the edge of the hole. It fell squarely into the middle
of the cocoa.
looked straight at me and said, through clenched teeth: "OK. That
does it. Now they've made me angry!"
lives depended upon artillery and air support. Dak Seang was a difficult
environment for an FO. At any one time, there were three to five
battalions deployed independently in the area of operations, all requiring
artillery and air support. There were frequent check fires to permit
the air assets to provide close support. Our hilltop was also a difficult
location for an FO. It was moderately wooded, with treetops in the
75 to 90 foot range. The NVA were hugging our position. They never
seemed to attack from the same location. Tom and his RTO worked round the
clock, juggling the assets he had available from the 6/14th and directing
fire from other units, too, but the bottom line was we were exposed on
that hilltop. Toward the end, it became impossible for us to be resupplied
with food, water or ammo. My boss, MAJ Noll, was wounded by shrapnel
in the lower spine when an enemy round exploded in a tree above his hole.
Tom's RTO was wounded by shrapnel from an RPG while trying to help repel
a ground assault on the battalion. Tom's radio was put out of commission.
On 4/23/70, during that same ground assault, the battalion "broke out"
and headed back toward the SF camp.
and I were together, sharing one radio and one map between us. Heading
down a ravine from the hilltop, the battalion came under fire from one
or more automatic weapons covering the mouth of the ravine. My NCO
was wounded. Meanwhile, a medevac came on station, and our senior
NCO called him in to pick up our wounded, including MAJ Noll, my NCO, the
RTO, and several wounded ARVN soldiers. There was a small open area
on the side of the hill created by airstrikes. It was amazing that
the pilot could find that tiny LZ, much less get the helicopter into it.
The medevac drew machine gun fire before we even got everyone aboard, but
the pilot held it at a low hover until he had a full load and then lifted
almost straight up, absorbing hits all over his ship. He was forced
to make an emergency landing at the SF camp.
of those machine gun rounds hit our senior NCO in the belly, and he died
in the RTO's arms before they landed.)
left me and Tom laying prone at the uphill end of the tiny LZ. Several
ARVN wounded and a few able-bodied soldiers were in the middle of the LZ.
I said to Tom that we needed to get off that LZ. Tom, calm as ever,
was trying to raise the 6/14th to see if they had a helicopter in the area
that could pick us up. He was twisting the PRC-25 knob to change
the frequency when a machine gun began firing at us from behind.
He had us in his sights. The rounds were kicking up dirt all around
us. We rolled in opposite directions, trying to get out of his target
zone. I rolled across the LZ and into a depression caused by an uprooted
tree. Then all hell broke loose with small arms fire raking the LZ, coming
from uphill of our position. I saw several wounded ARVN killed as
they tried to return fire from the middle of the LZ.
never saw Tom again. I believe he was killed by the initial burst
of machine gun fire.
ATVN soldiers (one of them wounded) took care of the machine gun, though
among the 4 of us, not one of us had a grenade. (It was an M-60, at the
mouth of a deep bunker.) The four of us set off downhill, crossing
an open area of trees felled by airstrikes. I was attempting to point them
back in the general direction of the SF camp (I did not have the map, just
a compass), when we were taken under fire again, from uphill. I got
separated from them, too, and was damn near shot at point blank range by
a guy in a covered fighting position that I almost stepped on as I turned
to follow them. Fortunately, he missed and (17 rounds later), I didn't.
I then alternately walked and crawled back to the SF camp by early evening
and scampered across an open area to a bunker on the outer perimeter. It
was manned by soldiers from my own ARVN battalion who were yelling encouragement
to me. Our ARVN A Co. commander (a lieutenant like me) came double-time
from around the outside of the concertina, saluted and grabbed and hugged
31 years I have thought about Tom and what happened to us, going over it
again and again, remembering how Tom looked grinning from behind his glasses;
remembering how he was calm and funny; remembering how he took care of
his RTO; remembering how we all depended on him. Then last August
I got that call from his brother. It was a wonderful thing to talk
to someone who knew Tom and to talk about what a great guy he was and how
much I have missed him. I'll bet it is hard for the average person
to believe you can feel like that about somebody you knew for just six
days, but those were not six ordinary days and Tom Kelly was not an ordinary