Behind The Wall

"Behind The Wall"
By George "Sonny" Hoffman

Name: Frank Anthony Celano E5/US Army Special Forces Hometown of Record: Los Banos, Calif. Date of Birth: 19 Jul 1949 KIA: 22 Jan 1971

Name: David Ives Mixter E5/US Army Special Forces Hometown of Record: Darien CT Date of Birth: 22 January 1949 (New York NY) MIA: 29 January 1971

Name: John Robert Jones E5/US Army Special Forces Home of Record: El Paso Texas Date of Birth: 20 February 1949 (Louisville KY) MIA: 05 June 1971

This is what you get when you look behind The Wall. Dig into the archives and you can read the after action reports. You can get more data, more dates and times, coordinates, status reports, and presumptions. You can read the official line. What is missing is the story in human, personal terms. Who were these guys and what happened to them. Only the living who knew them, served with them, and were with them to the end can tell you who they were and what happened.

Frank Celano, David Mixter, and John R. Jones were all dear friends of mine. We served together in the same unit at the same time. Although I was not present on their fateful missions, I was with them in spirit and spoke with those who were. For each of these men, there isn't a living human being better qualified to tell their story. When I go, their story goes with me.

On a recent visit to The Wall, I felt their presence. They want their story told, and they wanted me to tell it. At least, that was the overwhelming feeling I walked away with. That feeling inspired me to hone my writing skills and begin writing. All that I've written leads me to this day. When this is finished, I can return to The Wall and say, "I told them like it was."

My association with these men goes back to Special Forces Training Group. Together, we went through nine months of the most intensive, rigorous, and demanding training course the U.S. Army offered. Throughout this training, teamwork was stressed. Those who could not assimilate themselves into the team, failed. Those who came out the other side, wearing a green beret, were bonded like few people ever experience outside of marriage.

We all drew Vietnam assignments and that bond grew. We all volunteered for SOG Recon, and that bond became welded. We changed so much in that time, that our closest relatives and friends would find it difficult to relate to us. We knew each other like Siamese quadruplets. In training, we were the four musketeers. We worked together, played together, went on pass together, laughed and suffered together. Losing all three left a huge void in my life and a scar on my soul. I have no doubt they exist, because I can feel them. When I stood at The Wall, that void was filled.

Frank Anthony Celano was a sandy-haired man of medium build, plain features, and a quiet, unassuming demeanor. Frank was a guy you could talk to about serious matters--matters of the heart, current affairs, philosophy. Women would like Frank for his sensitivity. Frank would be faithful, a good father, and a hard worker. Frank had a destiny in suberbia, and we knew he'd be the first to marry, the first to settle down, and the first to have kids.

Frank and I had San Diego in common. We shared a love of the beach. We even looked alike. People recognized us as California boys. I guess we had that Beach Boy look and attitude. We became fast friends, because we knew our friendship could carry on after the Army. In contemporary vernacular, we were homies.

I didn't see Frank during my first tour, but we met in my second at a SOG training camp at Long Thanh in Bien Hoa province between Saigon and Vung Tao on the Jan 22, 1970. He was there attending recon team leaders school. I was there preparing for a POW snatch mission with my team--RT Montana.

We ran into each other in the mess hall. Neither knew the other was in camp. I was just finishing my meal as he entered. We sat and talked for fifteen minutes, catching up on each others lives.

Frank had a fiancee, a beautiful girl in San Diego. He showed me her picture. I told him she was hot stuff. She was a California dream girl. Frank brought the picture out to show me, but looked at it longer than I did. He had no business being in SOG. I didn't either, for that matter. He knew Connie and saw her picture numerous times in Training Group, so I didn't bring it out.

I was bone tired after a grueling morning and needed a long nap. Montana had the rest of the afternoon off, because we were going out that night to work on night movement. I begged off, setting up a meeting after evening chow, several hours before we had to depart. We'd have three hours to catch up properly.

I returned to our team hooch and simply crashed on my bunk. Several choppers landed in the pad beside the hooch shortly after I laid down. The noise didn't bother me, and the breeze they sent in through the louvered slats put me to sleep.

I dozed for almost an hour when Bentley, a team mate, shook me, saying, "Get your shit. A chopper went down. We may be going in."

You have no time or inclimnation to stretch and yawn when you hear, "Get your shit!" You don't "get your shit" unless you might have to use your shit. Going in after a downed chopper was high risk. The enemy often set hasty ambushes for recovery teams. I was on the pad with the rest of Montana, checking equipment, checking ammo, chambering and extracting oiled rounds. Bentley made radio checks, and Sheppard talked with a Captain in contact with the airborne command and control ship. We waited.

Five minutes went by. Sheppard came over and said, "Stand down. They recovered the bodies, and they're bringing them here. Put your gear up and get back right away. There's quite a few, and they're going to need our help."

I breathed a sigh of relief, but the adrenaline was still pumping. Excitement charged the atmosphere. This was war. People died. That's the breaks. The big question running through my mind was, did we get the bastard that shot down the chopper.

When I returned to the pad, the chopper was in-bound. Minutes latter, it set down and cooled us off. We ran under the whirling rotor blades and reached for body bags. Eight were stacked on the deck of this Huey. I dragged the top one off, and one of the Yards helped me pull it clear of the chopper. I pulled the heavy zipper down three feet and looked into the face of Frank Celano.

Had I seen my mother's face, I could not have been more stunned. Plain as day, the face was Frank's. Furthermore, the face was that of a dead man, eyes half open showing the white underside. Once you look into the eyes of a dead man, you don't need to check a pulse. The dead look dead. He showed no sign of injury. I saw no blood. He was just dead.

I went about checking his pockets for personal effects and removed his ring and wallet. Once again, I saw the picture of his girl, fighting hard not to slip it into my pocket. That picture was the most valuable possession Frank owned. I wanted it for that reason, but placed it in the plastic bag with everything else.

He wore his dog tags. We wore them in Vietnam, but never when going across the border. The tags would insure that his body would not get mixed up with any other, and he would go down as a KIA. I removed the tag on the long neck chain, placed it between his front teeth on edge, and smacked his jaw shut. The tag on the small chain, I fixed to the zipper tang. I then zipped Frank's body and handed the Captain the plastic bag with his personal items.

One bag cantained the body of the bastard who fired the B-40 rocket that brought down Frank's chopper. I stood over him for the longest time, just staring. He was an enemy hero, a lucky bastard and an unlucky one, all within the space of a minute. I felt no animosity. I didn't feel like spitting or kicking. He was just another dead hero on a PSP pad littered with dead heroes. I didn't cry or yell. My work was done. I returned to my bunk and resumed my nap.

During the evening meal, I learned the whole story. The dust had settled by then. No one had answers four hours prior. This is what happened:

Right after I walked out of the mess hall, the camp sergeant major entered and grabbed eight men he found there. He said, "Get your shit. We're going in on a downed chopper. The bird is in-bound."

The rotor wash that put me to sleep was there to pick up Frank and seven other SF men. An observation chopper, a two-man loach, had crashed and burned in dense growth thirty clicks from Long Thanh. The recovery team hovered over the wrecked craft and lowered rolled aluminum ladders down both sides. The team was climbing down the ladders when a B-40 rocket hit the front of the chopper, taking out the pilot and flight controls.

The chopper lifted rapidly, then rolled to its side, flinging the men who were clinging to the ladders. All died from the fall. Several who were in the chopper survived. In all, twelve Americans--eight SF and four aviators--died in the two crashes. One NVA body was recovered, along with his B-40 launcher and backpack.

In a letter home, I referred to the incident as a bad day at Blackrock. I referred to the eight SF men we lost. The others didn't matter, I suppose. I mentioned Frank Celano by name, but lumped him together with the others I knew personally. I read that letter recently, amazed that I could treat Frank's death that way. He was anything but "another guy I knew."

The person who suffered the greatest loss was the young woman in San Diego who, undoubtedly, married someone else. If I had just stayed a little longer, perhaps the man still eating would have been left. If I'd been on that chopper. If I had seen the man raising the rocket launcher. If I had just kept her picture, and looked her up, and....IF. Ifs can drive you crazy.

* * *

David Ives Mixter (Mix) stood tall in the ranks as a Green Beret should. He had a rough complexion, a bit pocked. With a little more meat on his bones he'd have been a bad-looking dude. Though he was tall, Mix wasn't bad. He was a soft-spoken gentle giant who laughed easily but rarely made anyone else laugh. Practical jokes, rubber barf, and gags were more his style. His virtue was generosity. He would give you the shirt off his back. Mix would share his last buck with you and was always good for a short-term loan.

I liked having Mix in our group. He looked like a Green Beret, even in civies, and made bad guys think twice before messing with us. In a fight, however, he'd be a liability. Mix was gangly and a fast oponent could slap him silly before Mix could land a blow. That's just conjecture, because we never had to fight. I often called him "Dumb Shit." I did so, not because he was dumb, but because I could. Calling a big man a dumb shit was like yanking a lion's tail when only you know he's just a big pussy cat.

I ran into Mix at the beginning of my second tour. We were both in the same Recon outfit at CCC and didn't know it. For two months, his team and mine were never in the camp at the same time. We crossed paths while crossing the compound in opposite directions. We just stopped and stared. "Mix?" "Sonny?" You get the picture.

We talked for hours. We had so much to catch up on, so many friends we had to exchange information about. Mix had been running recon longer than I had and was full of useful tips. He was dismayed that I hadn't found time to have a recon shirt made. "You have to have a good recon shirt, man."

A recon shirt is a jungle fatigue jacket with the bottom pockets removed and sewn on the sleeves. This made the blouse easier to tuck in. The bottom pockets are useless when web gear is worn, and recon men can't get enough pockets. You keep as much on your person as possible. His was a lucky recon shirt, he explained. The Yards put some magic on it. We all had lucky something-or- others. Mix had a lucky recon shirt.

Mix's team was on stand down--no missions for the forseeable future, a time to train, heal, replace lost men. RT Montana, my team, was on our way to Long Thanh for a week of training in preparation for a POW snatch mission. The mission was to launce from there, and we were due to leave that day--no time for a recon shirt, or a Yard magic potion. Mix insisted I take his.

That's one thing you don't do--take a guy's lucky something-or- other. You don't hide it, mess with it, steal it, or borrow it. The luck is his, anyway. If he hadn't told me it was his lucky thing, I'd have accepted the shirt without much thought. Borrowing from Mix was an old habit. My credit was good with him. He was relentless about my taking his shirt. The mission we drew was a tough one. I'd be going on it with no recon shirt, and a good recon shirt was something you had to have, he repeated. I took the shirt.

I was wearing that recon shirt when I met Frank Celano at Long Thanh, when I suddenly felt the need to take a nap. Our POW mission was a dry hole. We got hauled out and returned to Kontum. I was not looking forward to my return. I'd have to tell Mix about Frank. He'd be happy that the luck in his shirt saved one friend. Mix would look on the bright side, and he'd find the luck working on his behalf.

I went in search of Mix with his cleaned shirt in hand. My first query left me cold. Mix took a B-40 rocket in the chest. The team had to leave his body. Mix was an MIA, but absolutely dead.

Here's what happened:

His team had to pull reaction duty because there were no operational teams that weren't already deployed. Normally, the reaction team, like the fire department, just hangs out at the ready. The NVA shot down a fast mover (a jet) over southern Laos where Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam come together. The area was always hot. They went in to look for the pilot and ran into bad guys right away. A brief, intense firefight broke out between the team and a very large NVA unit that was manuevering to encircle them.

Mix was hit in the chest by a shoulder-fired B-40 rocket. Some said the rocket hit him in the chest, others said it hit right in front of him while he laid prone on the ground. In either case, his chest was a mess and he was unresponsive. His team leader took one look and knew he was dead. Every Yard that saw him said likewise. Mix was too big to carry and staying would doom the entire team. Since he was the only loss, the team leader made the decision to leave his body and try to get the team out.

Ordinarily, a team leader that leaves a man is ostrasized, even if he saves lives doing so. I don't think anyone faulted him under those circumstances. He got his team out under extremely difficult conditions, and leaving Mixter made that possible. Mix would have made them go if he were conscious. I know he would. He couldn't, because he was dead.

He was dead because an NVA soldier fired a B-40 rocket at him. You couldn't convince me of that until recently. He died because I had his lucky recon shirt. I survived the war because I stole it from his family.

The proper thing for me to do at that time was to turn in his shirt so that it could be returned to his family with his other personal effects. I let the picture of Frank's girl go, and regretted doing so. I kept the shirt. The shirt was, indeed, lucky.

When I stood before Mixter's name on The Wall, we talked about the shirt. No, I didn't talk out loud. People would think I was nuts, but we talked. He laughed when I apologized for taking his lucky shirt. He said he had three of them, and that all that bullshit about being lucky was for my benefit. I told him I kept it when I should have turned it in for shipment home to his family. He said they didn't send any field uniforms home. I told him I wore that shirt for years after the war. I wore it until the material would not hold together. He thought that was pretty funny.

I don't care what that dumb shit Mixter says; that was a lucky shirt.

* * *

John R. Jones (Wo Fat Pudgy) is, was, and always will be my best friend. I didn't care for him when we first met in Phase One of SF training. He did not fit my image of what a soldier should look like, much less a paratrooper. Green Beret? Give me a break.

John Jones was short, fat (actually, stocky--he just looked fat), and wore Army issue glasses that kept slipping down his cherubic nose. Often, he'd simply tilt his head back to look at you rather than push them back in place. If told to push his glasses up, he'd do so with his middle finger.

Jones didn't make friends very easily. He stood alone quite a bit. One sergeant asked Jones if he knew his name in Chinese. Jones tilted back his head and squinted. The sergeant said, "Wo Fat Pudgy!" We laughed our asses off. Jones pushed his glasses up and smiled his inscrutable smile. Jones had a handle that would stick--Wo Fat. I don't think anybody liked the idea of Jones wearing a green beret, and I was one of them.

The toughest part of SF training comes in Phase One. Phase One is Ranger school compressed into four weeks, with the last week set in the swamps of Camp McCall. Some called it Hell week, but in early February, the North Carolina swamp bears no resemblence to Hell--Hell on ice, maybe. More than half of SF training dropouts occur during the McCall survival week--Hell week. You parachute in with no food and try to survive in the swamp for a full week while conducting combat operations.

You don't have to go alone, though. Before starting out, everybody was assigned a buddy. Guess who I got? Good guess--Wo Fat. I knew I'd have to drag his fat ass all through that swamp. I think my first words to him were, "If you're the reason I fail this course, and we end up in the 82nd Airborne Division, I'll kill you." Jones pushed his glasses up and smiled. I wanted to knock those glasses off and wipe that smile on my boots, but he was my buddy by order of the Commander in Chief.

McCall was hell, pure and simple. There is absolutely nothing to eat in the swamp in winter. I have never been so hungry. The class hunted a German sheppard. I used a sixteen penny nail shoved down the bore of my M-14, propelled by a double-loaded blank round. If I had hit it, we would have fought over the rectum. That dog had been shot at before.

Surprisingly, Jones held his own. We bagan working together. We had to. There was no fat on that butterball soldier. He had big bones covered by hard muscle. Before long, I was wishing he were all fat. Bones and muscle are heavier than they look, and we often carried each other.

The worst part of Hell week was the night navigation course at the end. Until that part, individuals dropped out. The night nav course took buddy teams out. A blizzard blew in that day, freezing everything. Temperatures dropped into single digits with wind. Luckily, wind chill had not been invented back then.

To make this ten click (10 kilometer) swamp crossing, we each had one canteen of water, a poncho, a rifle, and the clothes on our back. Between us, we had three blank rounds which Jones carried in his pocket. These were to signal the support teams stationed on the boundry road. The three shots indicated that a buddy team wanted out. They'd triangulate the position and come in after the team.

Our strategy was to keep one of us dry as long as possible. We flipped a P-38 can opener. I lost, and had to carry Jones over every water obstacle, crunching through ice and getting wet past my knees. I was numb before eight and couldn't move an hour later. I have never known such pain and discomfort, nor been that tired and hungry. We rested on a dry mound. Jones piled up swamp litter around me to break the wind. I couldn't feel my feet. He took off my boots and socks, rubbed my feet, then placed them in his arm pits, inside his shirt. That's a buddy.

His was a noble gesture, and probably saved me from frost bite. I could see I wasn't going to make it and began talking about the 82nd Airborne Division and what a fine outfit it was with a glorious past. Jones kept working. I said, "Stateside paratrooper duty ain't bad, Jonesie."

He put his dry socks on me and put my wet ones on his feet. That was our plan, but that wasn't to happen until after the midpoint. We were far from the midpoint. I said, "We'd make good paratroopers, eh Jones? John R.? Wo Fat?"


"Jones, let's end this. Fire off those blanks."


"Give them to me. I can."

"I threw them away."

"You what?"

"We didn't need to carry extra weight."

"What weight? Three damn rounds? We can't get out of this swamp without a map, you idiot."

"We've got a heading and a distance. Seven more clicks that way, and we're out."

It is amazing what you can do when you have no other choice. Jones dragged me through that swamp, and I only spelled him a few times. He was outstanding. From there on in, SF training was a cake walk. It was me and John R. after that. We were buddies through and through, and he never told anyone about dragging my ass through the swamp. To him, a buddy team went in, and a buddy team came out. That was all SF wanted or cared about, and that's all that mattered to John R..

We went our separate ways when we landed in Vietnam, but met up shortly before our tours ended. We had a great reunion, and made plans for after the war. We both planned to get out after our hitches were up. My grandmother was a permanent address we both knew. He visited her with me on three-day passes. He remembered the address, but wrote it down again at my insistance.

Jones had a girl in El Paso that he was getting serious about. He talked of marriage. He was quite surprised by my decision to return to Nam for another tour with SOG. He thought it was suicidal and out of character for me. I laughed this off, then launched into my SOG sales pitch. "SOG is where it's happening, man. It's the biggest show in Nam. You don't have to chase gooks with SOG, buddy; they come to you."

He said something like, "Yeah, by the truck load. Well, I can see I won't be needing this address."

When I got out of the Army in April of '71, I checked frequently with my grandmother, expecting word from John R.. Nothing ever came. I grew dispondent that he would trash our friendship without so much as a "so long, pal." I became angry when a year passed. I said, "Piss on him" after two. Still, every time I passed through El Paso, I stopped to call Joneses. I had no other way, but never found a Jones that knew John R..

In 1987, while working in Phoenix, I picked up a book called, "Green Berets at War." I read most of that book. I read until I got to the part where a SOG radio relay site on Hickory Hill was overrun on June 5th, 1971, a few weeks after I left Vietnam and the Army. Sgt John R. Jones of El Paso was listed as Missing in Action at Hickory Hill. I read it twice, then a third time before throwing the book against the wall.

I can only surmise that things did not go well for John R. back in El Paso. He had to re-enlist to return to Nam. He had to volunteer for SOG to return with SF. I suppose he figured I'd still be there, but I got a four month early out. He was a new guy, a newbie, and I knew how SOG treated newbies. What you did before meant nothing at SOG. A man remained a newbie until he proved himself by SOG standards. Knowing John, he was not well received. It took time to appreciate John R. Jones.

What happened at Hickory Hill is well documented. This is the report I got:

Task Force 1 Advisory Element [SOG's CCN] was forced from its Hickory Hill radio relay site at Dong Tri in early June 1971. The Hickory Hill post had existed on strategic Hill 953, in northwest Quang Tri Province at the edge of the DMZ since June 1968. On June 3, heavy North Vietnamese artillery began battering the bunkered Hickory Hill defenses.

On June 4, five wounded Special Forces and ten indigenous commandos were medically evacuated, leaving SSgt. Jon R. Caviani and Sgt. John R. Jones with 23 commandos defending the mountaintop. At about 0400 hours on June 5, Jones and Caviani were in a bunker when a hand grenade was dropped through the air vent, wounding Sgt. Jones in the leg. Jones left the bunker, and was seen shot in the chest by an NVA soldier.

An NVA battalion stormed the summit and captured Hickory Hill on June 5 in adverse weather which prevented air support. In the bunker, Caviani played dead as NVA soldiers came in looking for survivors. As his bunker was set on fire, Caviani ran, burned, to another bunker. He spotted a helicopter and attempted to signal it, serving only to alert the enemy to his position. Caviani was captured as the last positions fell.

Later searches failed to turn up any sign of John R. Jones, dead or alive. He is among nearly 2,500 Americans still missing in Southeast Asia. There can be little question that the enemy knows his fate, yet the Vietnamese deny knowledge of him. Evidence mounts that hundreds of these men are still alive, captive, waiting for their country to bring them home. One of them could be John R. Jones.

Sgt. Jon R. Caviani was released by the Provisional Government of Vietnam on March 27, 1973. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his attempt to defend Hickory Hill.

In the glorious CMH write-up, Jones is referred to as, "The other American." In the after action reports, he is likewise treated as a non-entity. The above MIA report mentions him, but that's because the report is about him.

I know John R. is dead. His spirit was at The Wall. John stayed on Hickory Hill and died defending it. The enemy paid a high price for that hill, far more than they expected, and far more than it was worth. They were enraged when they finally breached the wire and stormed in only to find that most of the defenders got away. Before any officers could stop them, John's body, along with those of the Chinese Nung and Yard commandos who died, were ripped to shreds in a victory blood orgy. The pieces were carried off and discarded in the thick jungle to hide the atrocity. That's why the Vietnamese say they know nothing about a John R. Jones. That's the impression I got at The Wall.

Cavaini was not captured as the last position fell, nor was he trying to signal a chopper at four in the morning, in adverse weather, with the enemy inside the wire. He slipped away, as did thirteen of the twenty-three final Nung and Yard defenders. Cavaini was captured days later, near Khe Sanh, by an old man with an ancient bolt action rifle. I didn't get that from a ghost in a wall. That was in Caviani's report after his return.

To defend Hickory Hill for as long as they did took courage and heroism of epic proportions. SSG Jon R. Cavaini earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. I have no qualms about that, but SGT John R. Jones earned nothing less. Caviani, Special Forces, and the U.S. Army have a vested interest in sticking with the official version of what went down. The Vietnamese Officers who were responsible for taking Hickory, likewise, must stick with their version. Somewhere in Vietnam are middle-aged veterans of Hickory Hill, men who climbed over the bodies of their comrades, stormed into the camp, and went berzerk. I intend to find those men and talk soldier to soldier.

We didn't find out what happened at the Alamo until we talked with Mexican soldiers. We didn't find out what happened at Little Big Horn until we talked to Indians. There is much more to this story, and John's spirit can't rest until it is discovered and told. I won't have to do this alone. The commander in chief issued me a buddy.

Copyright: 1995 By SSG George "Sonny" Hoffman

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