Lynn Walker served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1972. He was a "LRRP," or long-range reconnaissance patrol. He graduated from Bozeman High in 1969. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Walker: "I wanted to make a career out of the Army. It was my intention. I enlisted in the Army."
Gazette: In 1969, Vietnam was happening. It's on the front of newspapers and news broadcasts. Did it worry you at all to go into Vietnam?
Walker: "No. It was necessary in the military if you wanted to advance in rank, you needed to have actual war experience."
Gazette: So this was it if you were going to be career military?
Walker: "It was the only war we had at the time."
Walker completed his basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash., then went to Fort Gordon, Ga., for advance individual training, then to Fort Benning for Airborne School, to learn how to jump out of airplanes. Then, he went to Vietnam.
Gazette: How do you learn to jump out of airplanes?
Walker: "You go through pretty intensive physical training, a lot of running, how to land, how to roll, how to absorb the shock. Then, they start you jumping off 40-foot towers and kind of slide off a zip-line apparatus. Then, they graduate you to a 200-foot tower that they have a parachute and pull up and drop you from. Then, the next step after that is put you in an airplane and fly off over the drop zone and kind of boot you out the door."
Gazette: Is that scary?
Walker: "First time out was pretty scary. Then, you're not free falling. You're static line jumping. Your chute is pulled automatically for you. After that, it got to be kind of fun. It was a kind of thrill jumping out of them. The planes themselves were old. They sounded like they were going to come apart at any time. You were kind of happy just to get out of them."
Walker received orders for Vietnam, assigned to the Americal Division. He landed in Cam Ranh Bay.
Gazette: What are your first memories of Vietnam?
Walker: "Heat and humidity. Being from Montana, so when we walked out the door and it was like walking into a steamy locker room, it was a little confusing, but everyone guided you to where you needed to be."
He went to Chu Lai after several days of in-country training.
Walker: "They were getting pretty constantly hit with 122 mm rockets because we were close to the mountains and the (North Vietnamese Army) would shoot rockets because at the time the Marines were there and they had their (F4) Phantoms and they were always trying to hit those aircraft with the rockets, but they weren't exceedingly accurate so if they landed inside the American compound they were happy.
"... The first time I came under rocket attack, I thought I was pretty fast. I ran for the bunker, and it was already full when I got there."
Gazette: So where'd you go?
Walker: "In the bunker on top of everybody else."
Gazette: What do you remember about Chu Lai?
Walker: "Well, it was kind of pretty. It was on the beach on the South China Sea. It was my first introduction to — how to say this gently — sh-t burning detail. You go out and burn it."
Gazette: I've heard that's one of the things and smells of Vietnam that no one forgets.
Walker: "Yes. It was a very positive incentive to make sergeant because then you didn't have to do it anymore."
Gazette: What other sights and sounds and smells do you remember?
Walker: "Smells do play a big part. The Vietnamese hooch maids used a fermented fish sauce. I think it was called nuoc mam. It was very strong and a very distinctive smell. I never got used to it, but to this day, that's one of their most popular condiments, but it kind of put me off."
He had originally been assigned to work with mortars.
Walker: "So the LRRPs came around recruiting. One of the things they said is that you get to draw jump pay again. (They also said), 'We don't take mortars so you don't have to pack a base plate in the field.' I thought, 'Oh, that sounds pretty interesting.' I joined the LRRPs at that point. ... We went in six-man teams behind enemy lines. Sometimes, cross-border. And, my wife wanted to know if I could say that. I said, 'Yeah, we were declassified back in the ’80s.'"
Gazette: The LRRPs weren't necessarily well known, at least in the public, did they tell you what you were going to do? Did you know about them?
Walker: "No. Never had heard of them. It was kind of an in-country phenomenon. After Vietnam, the Army did away with the LRRPs. The only thing that is similar to the LRRPs now is the Marine Force Reconnaissance. The Marines actually kept that long-range recon capability after World War II. The Army did away with it after World War II. So the original LRRPs when the Army decided they needed this function were actually trained by the Marine Force recon."
Gazette: How did they present this? Was it, 'Hey, you want to do this?' What did they tell you? Did you know what you were getting into?
Walker: "Yeah, and I'm kind of a little adrenaline junkie jumping out of the airplanes and all of that, plus they presented the challenge that first you had to get through the in-country training program. Out of the 23 of that started, only four of us went into the company."
Gazette: Was it they couldn't make it, or was it self selecting?
Walker: "It was physical training that was severe. You were running up to seven miles with a 50-pound pack, a rifle and some water. Lots of map reading. Lots of demolitions. Lots of small arms training. It's essentially in-country ranger school. Then when I got done there, I had to do almost another month of training with the MAC-V Recondo and the Fifth Special Forces down in Nha Trang. That was actually multinational training. I was actually training with Korean ROKs and Thai LRRPs and different nationalities."
Gazette: Did you think you were going to make it through this intense training?
Walker: "There were a few times I got a little sick and little hurt, and I wondered if I was going to be able to. I just kept pushing on."
Both schools required a combat mission for graduation.
Walker: "The one out of Chu Lai, I actually got put in for my combat infantry badge on my graduation mission. I got off the chopper and there was chunks of turf flying up in the air and I looked at it and I couldn't figure out what it was and my team leader grabbed me and pulled me to the trees. It was the NVA across this ravine had opened up on us with a .51 caliber anti-aircraft gun. The bullets were getting there before the noise. About the time I heard the whoom, whoom, whoom."
Gazette: At any point did you wonder, 'What have I gotten myself into?'
Walker: "Yeah, there was a few situations I didn't know if we were going to come out."
Gazette: When you're doing reconnaissance behind enemy lines, what kind of support do you have if things go wrong?
Walker: "We had a radio. ... We could have artillery, although I was never close enough in to actually use artillery. Primarily it was helicopter gun ships. Sometimes if we were way out, it was Phantoms to get out to us, in which case we always requested the Marine pilots."
Walker: "They were the best at ground support."
Gazette: After LRRP training, then what?
Walker: "Then I got picked to be on a team. Even if you went through all that training, it was up to the individual LRRP teams whether they wanted to take you in the company or not. ... If nobody wanted you, you went back to a line company."
Walker was on LRRP Team Tennessee.
Gazette: What does a regular mission look like?
Walker: "We could only go out for five days at a time because we could not be resupplied in the field. It would give our position away. Stealth and silence were our friends. They might know we were in the area, but they didn't know where we were. We had strict noise discipline. We were completely camouflaged. The idea was for them not to know where we were. What I am always proud of, if you read and talk to the vets when they were on the base camps, they were always waiting and wondering when they're going to be attacked. We took the fight to them."
Gazette: You were always the aggressor?
Walker: "Our main mission was to find their main base camps and supply lines and ammo dumps and then call in the big stuff — call in the bombers and Phantoms and the gunships. We were only six men. We weren't going to shoot up an NVA division very much. But, we'd find them and we'd let the big stuff come in."
Gazette: When you found them, did you ever get satisfaction — if that's even the right word — of seeing them taking care of?
Walker: "Most often we had to get out because then they knew somebody was there. It was triple canopy jungle, it was pretty tough to find them."
Gazette: How do you find the enemy?
Walker: "Usually we'd go into an area based on intelligence reports. We'd have a general idea of what to look for. One of my first missions was where we went into an area where a Special Forces A Team, which is 12 Green Berets, completely disappeared. We went into look for them. We did not find them, but found lots of NVA.
"The NVA is all I ever saw, the soldiers, except for one that was Chinese."
Gazette: What's the NVA look like? They're trained fighters, you're a fighter as a solider: What's your assessment of them?
Walker: "I had a lot of respect for them. They were trained soldiers. They were dedicated. They were very committed to getting the LRRPs because we did a lot of damage to them. We could find them when nobody else could. They sometimes came after us with everything they had."
Gazette: What do you mean by that?
Walker: "With heavy weapons and a lot of men. We were six, and there was times when we were completely and totally surrounded and the only thing that got us out was the gunships in time to get us supported.
"... I ended up walking point my whole time. We didn't change positions so I was a front (man). That's what I did."
Gazette: Did that cause you some concern?
Walker: "That's where I wanted to be. I wanted to know what was going on."
Gazette: In Vietnam you don't bunch up, you spread out. Is that true for LRRPs?
Walker: "Yes. You're spread out enough to where if they throw a grenade, it's only going to get a couple of you, not all of you."
Gazette: They also had a name for LRRPs. What did they call you?
Walker: "'The men with painted faces' is what they called us."
Gazette: Can you explain that?
Walker: "When we went out we were completely camouflaged, even our eyelids. The idea was to be completely undetectable. We wouldn't even take a bath for a couple days before we went out because they smelled different than us. And our soap you can smell. We're working so close you can smell them."
Gazette: Must have been a fragrant group.
Walker: "Especially after we came back from five days."
Walker was injured in Vietnam.
Walker: "I came back very severely wounded. I spent more than a year in an Army hospital, so I kind of had some detox time."
Gazette: The second time you were injured, you stepped on a mine. How did that happen?
Walker: "I was walking point for a radio relay team. I had actually run enough missions that I didn't have to go out in the field anymore. But we were running preliminary recon for the ’71 Laotian offensive, and we were kind of short-handed, so we had a whole bunch of guys who were new in the company. They thought it was relatively safe, a radio relay. They weren't even a regular team, but they needed someone to take them out who had some experience, so I volunteered. ... I was walking point, and I realized we were in a mine field and I was trying to get us out of it."
Gazette: How do you know you were in a minefield?
Walker: "It was very mountainous where we were and there was a steep bank, and it had been in an area where we had been in before, years ago but left. So they came and mined it after we left. I was trying to get us out of it and didn't quite make it."
Gazette: What do you remember about that?
Walker: "Flying through the air. Watching the blood squirting out of my legs and trying to get a tourniquet on my leg, barking orders at the new guys what to do and what to watch out for because I was the only one out there that had the experience."