Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
A1C Larry Sutherland Part I: USAF Security Police in Vietnam
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Airman First Class Larry Sutherland joined the Air Force at 17, and signed up for the Security Police training program. In Vietnam, many Air Force bases were completely surrounded by guerrilla forces, so the USAF Security Police were specially trained to protect them from direct attacks and sabotage.
During his training in North Dakota, Sutherland and some fellow soldiers wanted to “get even” with some missile security personnel that they took issue with. To do so, they broke into missile silo, but they were caught. Two members of the group went to prison, but Sutherland was found innocent of sabotage, and avoided being court martialed. Sutherland was then given a choice: Stay in North Dakota, or train at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and then head to Vietnam. At that time there was a rumor that 75% casualties were expected in the unit he would join in Vietnam, but Sutherland wanted to get out of North Dakota so badly that he didn’t care. So, he went to Schofield.
According to Sutherland, the Security Police training at Schofield was worse than Vietnam. He said the instructors were “the most sadistic, mean bastards I've ever seen in my life or since. I could not believe that anybody could be so mean and hateful, in all ranks, from two stripers up to the officers. They just hated us. They treated us with such contempt...And when you fell out, and guys did, because guys were dying of heart attacks, they went over and pissed on them. That's the kind of people they were. They were pissing on dying people. I saw it with my eyes. I can see it till the day I die.”
After completing his training, he was sent to Vietnam, where, due to the high casualty rate, he was sure he was going to die. He was stationed first at Pleiku Air Base, and then Phan Rang Air Base. Both bases were surrounded by guerrilla forces.
One Sunday night at Phan Rang, the Viet Cong launched a surprise attack. Alcoholism was a serious issue in his unit, so many of the Security Policemen at Phan Rang Air Base were intoxicated when the attack began. A few of these intoxicated men were in a bunker with Sutherland during the attack, and no matter how much he kicked and screamed, they wouldn’t get up to fight. They just rolled over and went back to sleep.
Upon returning to the states, Sutherland was tasked with monitoring protests in New Jersey.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in the first of a two part episode, we’ll hear from Airman First Class Larry Sutherland. After almost being court martialed, Sutherland was given a choice between staying in North Dakota, or going on a suicide mission to Vietnam. He chose the latter, first joining the other “bad boys” of the Air Force for brutal training in Hawaii, then deploying to Vietnam as a Security Policeman that was tasked with protecting his base from the surrounding guerrilla forces.
A1C Larry Sutherland:
According to people that know me, I was in love with it my whole life. When I was a little boy, I'd watch Steve Canyon. And I wanted to be in the military my whole life. I thought I'd go into the Marines, and my uncle dissuaded me from it, who had been in the Marines, and he says, "The Air Force is what you want, Larry."
When I turned 17, November of '66, I went to the Air Force recruiter and asked him what I needed to do. So, the day I graduated from high school at age 17, I would be in. He says, "Get your folks to sign this, this, and this." And I took the test. I think it was in the winter of '67, I was due to go in on delayed enlistment because people were trying to avoid the draft by going into the Air Force, so they had waiting lines to get in the Air Force. It took me, from when I swore in to when I went to basic, three months, so I was always three months ahead pay wise of all my peers. But I was enlisted. I was in the Air Force at 17.
I thought it sounded romantic. I thought the Steve Canyon thing, that I'd be around all the high-priced jets and the fighter pilots, and "Oh, this would be so cool, and I'd love it." And when I got to Grand Forks, I thought, "Oh, B-52s, what a neat airplane." Well, it took you about two shifts of guarding them out in the snow you didn't ever want to see one again, lost the romance real fast. Grand Forks was the turning point.
We hated missile security. Guys like Sutton, that got into missile security, had a nice warm camper, could take a book out. I mean, aircraft security had to hump B-52s in the snow, and it was miserable work. So, we were out driving around one night, and we thought we'd get even with the missile weenies, so we went over and jumped the fence, lifted the lid on the access door, and spun the combo. And that set off an alarm in the launch control facility 20 miles away. Well, that could happen. A rabbit could run across the top or something. But when we went to the second missile silo and did it, B-52s were taking off out of Dyess Texas and out of Grand Forks heading for Russia. It's a true story. And the rumor went around is that they shot and killed us trying to do number two. But what happened is a guy dropped a lighter that had 804th SPS, had Dave the loser on it, and that was the first guy they caught. And the dominoes went down after that.I was up for sabotage and court-martial. When the case was over and I was found innocent, I was offered supply or Vietnam, and I took Vietnam
As a matter of fact, in a bunker in Phan Rang, somebody was talking one night about, ‘They shot three guys trying to break into a missile silo in North Dakota.’ And I says, "I wasn't shot. We didn't break into it. We just spun the combo. Two guys went to prison and I went to Vietnam.
No, I had my volunteer statement in for Vietnam, just like Sutton, the rest of us. We wanted off that base. Sutton was not in trouble, by the way. Him and Jack Kline were one of the ones that first volunteered, but the word got around fast. You wanted to get off that base. They were looking for meat. So, I got on the list.
As a matter of fact, Jim Benton, he got passed over. He never told us his father was a general in the Air Force, until much later we found out. That's the only time he pulled strings. He called his dad and said that somebody was getting paid off to keep him from going to Nam. And the next day he had orders, and he was sitting next to me on the airplane. And we got our wish.
We were told that we were going to go get a little bit of heavy weapons training, but the unit that we were going into had... This is the rumor, was that 75% casualties were expected, and our life expectancy was supposed to be 15 minutes in combat. That was the rumor going around in Grand Forks, was before. Yeah. So, I basically volunteered for a Kamikaze mission to get out of North Dakota. From the day I hit Hawaii until the day I got home from Vietnam, I was sure I was going to die. I know that feeling that I was never coming back. That this was meant to be. This was going to be my swan song. I was sure of it. And everything they were telling us led me to believe that that's exactly what was going to happen.
I was always had a fascination with firearms, and I thought, "If I'm going to go into the service, why not try to get close to something with firearms?" So, I thought, "Why not be a cop? You can carry a piece." And I knew that if you flunked out of any school, they made you a cop, so I thought, "Well, I'll just volunteer for it and not have to worry about flunking out of any school."
They took me, and I get up there and the stars in my eyes. I thought, "Oh, this is going to be great." And it was the worst. It was worse than Vietnam. It was brutal. It was intense. If you got five hours of sleep a night, you were sneaking it, because they ran you from 5 in the morning to 1:30 in the morning every day except Sunday, every day. Saturday you had half a day off. But usually everybody was just heading straight for the bars just to dull the pain, to numb the pain. I know it won't make it on the TV, but that was one alcoholic unit. I mean you got an education at that place, and that was it. All I can say is they were the most sadistic, mean bastards I've ever seen in my life or since. I could not believe that anybody could be so mean and hateful, in all ranks, from two stripers up to the officers. They just hated us. They treated us with such contempt. I told you before. This is true. When we did the Kolekole March, you watched the scene in From Here to Eternity where they make Monty, Robert E. Lee Prewitt go up and down Kolekole Pass twice. Every one of us has felt that because that was the killer, that was the march. I can still hear them, "Keep your intervals. Don't bunch up. Get off my shoulder." And when you fell out, and guys did, because guys were dying of heart attacks, they went over and pissed on them. That's the kind of people they were. They were pissing on dying people. I saw it with my eyes. I can see it till the day I die. It happened.
The Cadre. That's what they called these guys, the Cadre. They were the instructors.
So, there were guys that actually died in the training?
Yes. Heart attacks. So, they'd send these guys... For instance, if you were getting rid of the worst you had, you might take some of these fat boys and send them off to Hawaii. Well, you'd get these Master Sergeants. These guys were eating pretty good in the chow hall. They were really out of shape. And they tried to work us slowly into it, but it was get down and give me 10 all the time. Run everywhere you went. You never marched. You ran double time everywhere. And every time your left foot hit the ground, it was kill, kill, kill. We were animals. They turned us into the meanest bastards they could make.
And the proof of the pudding is on graduation night we burnt cars in the parking lot. We tore up the barracks. McNamara, Kado, and I went to Wheeler Field and caused a riot in the Airman's Club, where we were disarming the cops as they were coming through the door. We stole a deuce and a half and ran the gate. The Hawaiian Guard jumped out of the way to keep from getting killed. Namar and Kado were like the cats in [inaudible]. Worse. Truman Capote said about the two characters, by themselves they were incapable of anything, but together they made a monster." When I read that book, I thought Kado and McNamar, because together, and they were never apart, they were monsters. And everywhere you went with them, whether it was tearing up the Wheeler Airman Club or it was shooting water buffalo, you knew trouble would follow. Those two guys were unbelievable. And I've never known anything on TV, in movies or books since that compared to those two guys. They had heart. They were brave, fearless. Namar is the meanest little bastard you ever seen. But he gave you faith and courage and hope. You never saw him afraid. And he isn't afraid today. Out in the parking lot the other night he's challenging the cop that's driving by. And I go, "That's the old McNamara I remember." He was mean as a box of snakes. But I'll tell you what, you felt better having him around. You did. Because he made everybody want to go to war.
And what happened, I'll tell you a true story, that Colonel Fox at Schofield Barracks marched us as a formation to the base theater and made us watch The Devil's Brigade when it came out. Prior to the movie being rolled, I never paid to see The Devil's Brigade. We saw it as a unit. And he says, "This is what you guys are all about, the best and the worst." And that's the truth, because some of the squadrons sent the best men they had, some sent their trouble cases. And I was one of them. McNamara was one of them. Blue was one of them. Tom Ryan was one of them. We were all the bad boys of the Air Force. Instead of prison, they gave us Schofield Barracks, which was just like prison. You can call it a garden spot at the Pacific. I saw the butthole of Hawaii. That place was awful.
Lieutenant Karbowski's group was the group I was in. That was the 28 men. That was Heavy Weapons Section. Because we had other sections that just drove QRTs, and guys that were basically like light infantry. But we were the heavy weapons guys.
I got there May 23rd. We graduated, I think it was August. Or we left country August 27th. Or we left Hawaii. Hickam. They kicked us off Schofield for the last three days. They put us in a hangar to keep us away from everybody. We were sequestered. We were junkyard dogs. We were just mean. They had to keep us somewhere, so they put us in an open hangar on Hickam, bunk beds on the hangar floor until an empty plane came through and they could get us to war.
We were at a favor pitch. I can remember coming into Phan Rang wasn't such a big deal. We were all psyched and ready for that. We knew that Phan Rang was the base camp. We come in the C-141. I remember getting off the plane, and they found a flatbed truck to throw all of our bags on. Everybody's got their jungle fatigues on. And I think Kado was right. We had a bus, get up to the base camp, which was the old 101st area. They turned it over to us. We were probably about two miles away from the main base. As soon as we're offloading our baggage, the Koreans opened up next door with 155s, 105s, and everybody went horizontal. We didn't know it was outgoing, we thought it was incoming. As soon as we went horizontal, all the old timers were laughing at... We could hear the laughter from the guys that had been there a while. That was harassment fire, nightly harassment fire. But they wouldn't tell you when it was going to happen. And that night, I guess they saw some loading bags and they thought they would do it then. Everybody that you've talked to has mentioned that story, but it's true. That was like, I would say about 8:00 at night, 9:00 at night. The next morning, up, get ready to go to Pleiku. That's when we started hearing the horror stories. You know how it gets through a unit fast that we weren't going to where it was going to be nice.
They were surrounded. They were getting pounded continuously with rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles. That they were too close to the Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. And it was true. You could hear a rolling thunder at night. When you were sleeping you could hear the buffs out there working along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I was resigned to my death. I knew I was going to die, and this was the way it was going to happen. All I was trying to figure out was how it was going to happen.
Well, they lined us up on a runway there, getting us ready to go to Pleiku. Brought a C-130 over and put us in. One man was so paralyzed with fear that he collapsed. And Sergeant Taylor says, "Pick him up and throw him on the airplane." Well, he regained his legs in flight, but he could not walk. He was trembling with fear. We got on the plane, then Taylor was telling us we were going to come off the plane shooting, so we're all psyched up. We're all scared to death. It's like D-Day for us. We're flying over the channel, basically. But instead it's the Central Highlands we're heading into. It took about half an hour maybe to get there.
I remember the back door opening up, and I thought, "What's going on?" We had already landed, and I didn't know was the C-130 was such a nice glide that when the back door opened up, I saw runway and I said, "We're here." Everybody's... We're jacking rounds into it, putting it on safety. And as the plane stopped, Taylor had us come off on both sides, come around and secure the airplane. We're all ready, in position securing the airplane, and that's when the aerial port came in with their skip loaders and they're laughing at us. About then, I heard the... And I see the diving board and the swimming pool, and I thought, "This isn't going to be so bad." About six hours later I found out different.
Taylor had us psyched. He had us ready to kill coming off the plane, and it was very well done. Beautiful deployment coming off that plane. And if you read the after action reports, it says August 28th, 1968, B-Flight Heavy Weapons Section, 822nd Combat Security Police Squadron arrived today.
Well, the prior unit that had gotten there before us, the 1st Safeside unit that got in there left such a bad impression on everybody. Left such a bad impression on everyone that was there. When we showed up, they figured we were just more of the same. I can remember walking up a street trying to mend fences with the 633rd, telling this guy, "We're not such bad people. We're just like you. We only went through more hell in training." About that time I hear thump, thump, thump and it's Mar Barracks and I'm looking, and this guy comes flying out of the second floor door, over the handrails, "Super Cop", and he's got his arms out like Superman, and he lands flat in the mud and knocked him cold. And I looked at the friend and I says, "Well, there's still some of us that think we're pretty cool." I've got witnesses that really happened. The guy could have killed himself, but I heard him running the full length of the hooch on the second floor, thump, thump, thump, "Super Cop", and he goes flying through the air.
He won't be invited to the reunions. He's the one that passed out drunk on me the night they came through the fence at Phan Rang and wouldn't wake up and I had to defend the position myself because he was drunk. The alcoholism was rife in that unit. Unbelievable. Ed Seboda died of cirrhosis of the liver. He had cirrhosis of the liver when he was 21. It was madness. It was so bad, colonel Fox had to stop it and he had to put out a knee deck that anybody caught drunk would be sent to prison.
Well, we were driving. They gave us the Jeep with the 50 caliber, went right to work, Quickie One. The original name was Rat One, but Taylor didn't like it, so he changed it to Quickie One. So, we get into Quickie One, Tom Ryan, Stinky, and I, drive around the perimeter and an A-1 Skyriader came back, and it still had ordnance left on its wing. Well, they couldn't land with live ordnance, so they'd drop it off the perimeter. When the bombs went off and the napalm was rolling, I threw the helmet on, I don't smoke, but I took a cigarette and was puffing on it, and then they started hearing the horror stories about what happened at Tet when Pat first got to Pleiku. And we realized that this is the real McCoy, this is the real thing. And it wasn't a couple of days before we started having... And you could see at night when you drove by buildings, you could see the holes, the shrapnel holes in the side of the building from the rocket attack. It was weird. It was like a Christmas tree looking building from all the lights coming out, and what they were shrapnel holes. And I thought, "Hmm, looks like they've seen some action." It didn't take long before we started seeing it.
You could tell all the newbies because they had all the crisps looking new stuff. The old timers look like cowboys with the quick draw holsters and the Mont Yard bracelets and the accouterments sewn onto their gear. You would stand guard mount right there with the 633rd security police squadron. Then the sergeant would come out and give you the local intelligence report. I cannot think of a night he didn't tell us we were surrounded and we're going to be hit that night. But we knew the good intel came from the Mamasans in our hooch.
The hooch maids were contract civilian employees that came and did your laundry or did the dirty work on base and you paid them $5 a month to iron your fatigues, spit shine your boots, make your bed, do all that, so you could focus more on your job instead of trying to be GI sharp. And they were there, they would come in at 6 in the morning and leave at 4 in the afternoon. They would beat your clothes on a rock with water poured over it from a hose. I mean no washing machines. It was real primitive. But every uniform got that red Pleiku mud in it. That was the neat thing when you came back from there, because you had this kind of pink patina to your fatigues that said you'd been to Pleiku. And some of us call it red clay commandos, Red Dirt Pleiku, Red Clay Commandos, Pleiku Commandos. They're Pleiku Cowboys. Pat Dunne's one of them.
The Mama-sans would say, I say, "Mama-san, you shine my boot?. You make my bed tomorrow?" She'd say, "No, no, no come tomorrow, VC hit tonight." They were right. They would be right. And they'd say, "We no work tomorrow, VC hit tonight." And like Kadu said, it was between the 19th and the 23rd that you had the bad ones in the beginning. That's when they really put it on you. As a matter of fact, when Johnson stopped the bombing of the north, it was two weeks later, we started getting them every other night. When I heard him say he wasn't going to run for president, he was going to stop bombing the north, my heart sank. We were all sitting around the radio and listening to that because we knew what was going to happen.
Well, we knew that if they quit bombing the north, that it was going to put that much more supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Ho Chi Min Trail was a half hour drive west of us. So we knew that they were going to start resupplying the VC and the NVA would start hitting us harder again.
I have the photograph, I can show you, it was a huge fireball and I was standing at night on the runway, because they didn't take off or land at night. The runways were closed. You didn't want to put runway lights on during a rocket attack. So it's black out on the base. The rockets are impacting. I'm looking around, I'm thinking, "A 360 degree John Wayne movie. It's like Cinemax, I'm just loving this." And when it finally hit that fuel bladder, the explosion happened, the concussion knocked me down and I could hear shrapnel whistling through the air, and that's when I did the low crawl into a bunker. From that point on, it became real. Then I realized it wasn't just a movie, it was real. This was really happening to me. It was beautiful though. It was the night, pitch black, and then the colors coming off that fireball. And here I was 18 in Vietnam going, "Wow, I've never seen that before." As a matter of fact, Colonel Fox, in his book, our commander wrote a book about airbase defense, and he shows a photograph of that POL area and he says, "The most poorly designed base in Vietnam Pleiku." And he says, "Because it was so vulnerable from all sides." You felt like you were just a duck in a shooting gallery and you just tried to, maybe it was just better to find a deep hole instead of running around. Now if you were in the Quickie-1 or in a QRT, you weren't in a bunker, you were racing to the vulnerable areas. But if you were in a bunker or in a tower, you just had to gut it out. That was in one of our Ranger sayings, "Just gut it out. Just tough it up just like George did. Tough it out. It won't last forever."
I found out when I went through and they let everybody pick the specialty or you could volunteer for something and they'd determine whether you get it or not. I picked 50 calibers because I heard it was not an off base weapon. It was not something you went on patrol with. So I realized, talking it over with a few other guys that if we picked fifties, we'd pretty much be able to stay on base and not have to go off base. Then we get to Vietnam and we were one of the few specializations that got to be used, where all the other guys, like John, who was the sniper, they made them a QRT or put them in a tower. Guys like that, that trained hard, knew their job, weren't allowed to do it.
Well, the regular security police never went off base, but one of the things we were supposed to be trained for, the Army got tired of chasing down RVC. They wanted us to chase their own VC down. So we were trained to where we could go 30 miles into the bush and go get them and wipe them out. The first 1041st did exactly that. They brought back prisoners, they kidnapped VC officers. They were pretty good at it. But the only thing they allowed us to do, one time, we did go off base and did a total perimeter sweep out into the boonies looking for launch sites, weapons caches that were buried underground, and it took all day long to go completely around Pleiku. And the unit did it, the 822nd did it. And when Colonel Fox heard about it, he was furious.
I don't know who we hated more. The PCs units we were stationed with or our NCOs over us, the higher ranking NCOs, and the officers weren't much better with the exception of Lieutenant Karbowski. And you hated, you felt like everybody hated you. The local security police, the VC, your officers, your NCOs, there wasn't a friendly face anywhere. You just felt like, "Well, if I've got to do this prison tour and it's six months, I'll get my Figma calendar and just gut it out." Then it extended. We were the first unit to actually get a PCs tour. Most Safeside units went over as TDY. We got PCs. So we did the longest tour over there. We had the most KIAs that we could turn in for credit, but we saw the worst of it.
When I was sitting over in the POL area and I saw the rocket hit our barracks, and I knew my buddies were in those bunkers and I thought, "They're dead". When I saw the explosion, I knew it was my barracks and I was probably 200 yards south of it. And it was, they put it right on us. And what they had done was somehow sighted it on where we used to build our bonfires every night. And they put it right in the barbecue pit and blew it all to hell and gone and collapsed the bunker. Half the barracks was in one bunker, half the barracks was in another one. That bunker collapsed on top of Kadu, McNamara, Johnny Koch. Cesar Garcia was on his knees praying to Jesus to save him when the rocket hit and we're trying to get ahold of him. He won't answer. But that was a tough one. That was the come to God time. They should have died. Jesus only knows why we didn't lose them all. And it was a 122, it was a big crater, a huge crater. And John Koch immediately crawls out of the bunker and goes and gets souvenirs out of the crater. He got the biggest, hottest piece of shrapnel for his souvenir. He still got it. I truly believe that with all my heart, Jesus and training saved us. Reverend Ranger Jim will tell you.
That was AC1 Larry Sutherland. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, Sutherland talks about the assault on Phan Rang and being tasked with holding protesters at bay in New Jersey.
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