First ground combat unit in Vietnam visits for 50th anniversary

From the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade are in Columbus this weekend to celebrate their 50th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of the brigade’s assault in Bashur, Iraq. The brigade was the first ground combat force in Vietnam in 1965 and became one of the most decorated in the Army.

“They are a proud bunch and they deserve it,” said retired Brig. Gen. Jim Yarbrough, who first commanded the unit after it was reactivated in Vicenza, Italy in 2000. The general serves on the 173rd Airborne Brigade National Memorial Foundation hosting the events at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center.

Members of the group spent much of Friday on a bus tour of Fort Benning and the Infantry Museum. Events continue at 9:30 a.m. today with ceremonial cleaning of the memorial on the Memorial Walk of Honor and the Silver Wings jump into the parade field at 1 p.m. with the unit’s colors. The names of 1,600 fallen soldiers from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan will be read throughout the afternoon.

Retired Col. Ron Leonard of Fairfax, Va., and former Capt. Bill Brewster of Cheyenne, Wyoming, were among the visitors to the museum. Both completed Ranger School at Fort Benning and served with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam.

“We had great soldiers in the 173rd, all airborne and prepared to take on about anything,” Brewster said. “We may have been outgunned at times but there isn’t a requirement for guns in what you have in your heart to do it. It is what’s inside of you. We had quite a bit of that.”

In the spring of 1967, Leonard recalled a mission to the central highlands to protect Special Forces border camps. That mission soon developed into a ground combat mission in Dak To.

Some of the brigade’s most intense fighting occurred on hill No. 875 in November 1976.

“We suffered heavy losses because we were in a well contested area on top of the mountain,” he said. “Several hill masses were contested because that is where the major North Vietnamese Army units were building underground tunnels, building over logs, re-enforced bunkers. We fought our way through those up and down the hillside.”

Leonard even remembers the day the brigade won the battle. “We won that hill on Thanksgiving Day,” he said.

Both Brewster, 68, and Leonard,75, point to Ranger training as helping them to survive.

“I told Bill Brewster that Ranger School was the best insurance we could buy,” Leonard said. “It prepared the mind. Any time we got an order, we went through a mental check list to make sure we were ready to do this.”

Brewster agrees. “It mentally prepared you for what you needed to do,” he said.