On this day in 1970, a United States Army Special Forces soldier leads a joint American-Vietnamese reconnaissance mission deep into enemy-controlled territory. It wouldn't go well. Staff Sergeant Franklin D. Miller would spend the day fighting for the survival of his seven-man team.
The mission started out smoothly, but then disaster struck.
It was about 11:00 a.m., and Miller and his point man (Hyuk) were moving slightly ahead of the others. Suddenly, shock waves rocked the forest. One of Miller’s men had accidentally tripped a booby trap. The resulting explosion left most of the team badly injured.
Miller and Hyuk, alone, were unhurt and left to deal with what followed.
“Suddenly, twenty-five to thirty NVA jumped up and began assaulting the ambush site where the blast had occurred,” Miller later described. “At first they weren’t aware of Hyuk and me on their flank. We dropped empty magazines, jammed in full ones, and tried to stop the onslaught into the kill zone.”
Miller still didn’t know if the team behind him was alive or dead.
Finally, the enemy disengaged, at least for the moment. Miller scrambled back to the ambush zone to discover one of his men barely clinging to life. Another was badly injured but able to walk. Three others were too badly injured to help themselves.
Together, Miller and Hyuk moved the team across a nearby stream, even as Miller radioed for help. He’d attempt to evade capture while the team awaited evacuation, he told headquarters.
“I wasn’t fooling myself,” he acknowledged. “My team wasn’t in any condition to move. Everyone was lying on the ground, shivering and gasping for breath. . . . Two guys had gaping holes in their upper chests. . . . It was a grim sight.”
Disastrously, the team was also leaving a bloody trail behind. The enemy would have no trouble following their tracks.
One of Miller’s men didn’t make it. He died at noon, just as the enemy returned. Miller sent the remaining men to a safer position further up the hill. Meanwhile, he returned fire. “Since I was the lone target,” he said, “they concentrated their fire on me. They threw rounds at me the likes of which I’d never experienced before.”
Then Miller had an idea. He threw two gas grenades towards the enemy, creating a dense, heavy fog. Once again, his men had an opening to escape.
It almost worked. Unfortunately, a brief encounter on the way out left Hyuk dead. Miller was now the only uninjured man. How could he get the four remaining members of his team to safety?
The hours that followed were grueling, punctuated by firefights and efforts to get to a nearby bomb crater for evacuation. On one occasion, Miller made a solitary trip, scouting a path. Only then did Miller himself finally take a serious blow.
He found himself lying on the ground, vomiting blood. At first, he didn’t know what had happened, but he soon realized he'd been hit: He had entrance and exit wounds on his chest and back. He bound them up, pulling his makeshift bandages very tight and hoping they would hold.
Miraculously, Miller found the energy to return to his team and began working to get his men to the bomb crater, one by one. “Can you believe it?” he later asked. “I’d been hit bad, and yet I was the most physically fit guy there.”
The firefights continued, even in the crater. Where was the rescue force? Nightfall was coming, and Miller was nearly out of ammunition. The men wouldn’t survive if help didn’t come soon.
But Miller hadn’t been forgotten. Americans were mobilizing a large Hatchet Force, realizing that a small rescue team wouldn’t be enough. When that force finally arrived, “I thought I was seeing things,” Miller said.
Finally, Miller and his men were evacuated to safety.
“I certainly didn’t feel like I’d done anything special,” Miller said, “to my way of thinking, I was only doing what was necessary . . . .”
His country disagreed. Miller is “an icon to what service in the armed forces is about,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declared. Miller received a Medal of Honor in June 1971.
Note: I simply couldn’t do justice to this story in one short blog post.
Might I recommend Miller’s own account in his book,
You won’t believe what he endured, and the story will have you on the edge of your seat.