USMC, 1st Radio Battalion, Vietnam Veterans
Purple Heart Medal

Larry Duke

FOLLOW-UP FOR THE MCCA RADIO LOG on the Death of Sergeant Larry Duke

Joe Armstrong, March 10, 2003

In September 1969 I got transferred from Hill 55 to relieve GySgt Chuck Colvard as outpost PltSgt for 6th platoon up on Dong Ha Mountain. For those of you who don't remember, that's about 1 click south of the DMZ, 2 clicks north of the Rock Pile, west of Camp Carrol and the Cam Lo Bridge and way the hell and gone out in the middle of Charlie country. Accessible only by helo or if you had cloven hooves like a mountain goat. And at that, about half the time the helos couldn't get up there because of our cloud cover. We, the 6th plt, had two companies of US Army 101st Airborne for security along with an army battery of 155's. Myself, Sgt Larry Duke, Cpl Dan Braden, LCpl Garcia, two ASA Spec 4's, an AFSS Airman 1st Class and to dancers, SSgts Quan and Angh made up to outpost platoon. Sgt Duke wasn't there very long. He took off on R & R in October and didn't come back to the 6th Plt.

In late January 1970, and on short notice, the Army removed all personnel from the 155's and both companies of the 101st Airborne and replaced them with ARVNs. Needless to say the 6th Plt pulled an extremely efficient and rapid re-deployment/re-location back to Radio Battalion at Dong Ha before the last of the 101st was gone from the mountain.

From there I went to Hawaii for some R & R. After I returned in February 1970, I surveyed a couple of sites here and there, and the powers to be selected Hill 397, north and west of Hill 327 (Freedom Mountain), north of Danang. Right at the entrance of Elephant Valley. THIRD Platoon was created. Captain Norton was PltCdr, GySgt Phil Dorsett was PltSgt/Senior Analyst, I was in charge of outpost construction along with Sgt Larry Duke, Cpl Dan Braden and two other Marines.

Third Platoon initially set up in an igloo on the handball courts in the area controlled by the 1st Marines and I don't remember the Camp name. After we got the bubble and the generators set up, sand-bagged, sand-bagged, and more sand bags and PSP, we started on the outpost construction atop Hill 397. The 26th Marines had established an OP/LP up there with a pair of 'ships big eyes', a 'centaur' and a couple of 'star-lites', but OP/LP wasn't big enough for our operations. So we got to do lots of neat and fun stuff like blowing trees with detcord, creating bunkers and trenches with C4, shooting wild dogs or rock apes and fighting the rats for your C's. Explosives, ammo, batteries, water, chow . . . . man pack - all of it! One trip a day . . . 4 hours of steady humping to get to the top, 10 minutes if we could get a helo.

We were about two or three weeks into construction. Operations up on the hill was up and running . . . crudely, but working effectively. Cpl Braden or Sgt Duke would take turns scrounging what we needed that wasn't readily available through the supply channels. Construction materials came up by helo normally. Sgt Duke and I had RON down at base camp. Battalion had scheduled a CH-46 for us the next day to make a couple of resupply runs. Sgt Duke and two of the 26th Marine OP/LP personnel were on the first run with mail, ammo, chow and some construction materials.

The CH-46 lifted off the helo-pad and lost power at about 150-200 feet. Not high enough to auto-rotate. The aircraft dropped like a rock, landing about 200 yards outside the wire line, flipped on its side and started burning. I don't know how fast I covered the 100 yards distance and all the concertina wire between the LZ and the bubble, but I was there before the rotors stopped thrashing bush and throwing dirt in the air. Captain Norton, Phil nor I could get to the helo. I remember that the crew chief and one pilot somehow got out of the aircraft, I don't remember if anyone else made it out [3 other Marine passengers died in this crash - PopaSmoke]. You couldn't see much of the aircraft because of the dense brush. The site was marked by black smoke from the burning fuel, white smoke from the burning magnesium air frame and red laser lines of light from tracers. In between the eruption of ammo and the WP explosions, we could hear the men trapped inside screaming. In absolute frustration and desperation I know I screamed, ranted, raved, went a little crazy, and finally sat down and cried. There was nothing we could do . . . nothing at all.

There was a memorial service two or three days later somewhere down near China Beach. On a hillside, the sun shining and a cool breeze from the South China Sea. Mostly . . . I remember the inverted M-16 with helmet and the quiet. . . .

Cpl Braden and Sgt Duke had been pretty good friends in country and they had gone through Pensacola together. A couple of us thought that Cpl Braden would be the one to escort Sgt Duke back to the USA, but that didn't happen. I don't know who, if anyone escorted him back. Dan got out of the Corps after Viet-Nam; he and I still keep in touch. Over the years we've managed to get together a couple of times, lie to each other and even manage to lift a beer or two. Without fail though, we always set one aside for Sgt Duke. About 4 years ago, the 'Traveling Wall' came through town . . . . Somewhere out in my shop, in one of my footlockers, in one of my scrap books . . . I have a wall rubbing . . .