Even through the haze of smoke in the dimly lit lounge, Sam Ybarra
glimpsed Ken Green as he walked through the door. "Kenny, over
here!" shouted Ybarra over the music blaring from a tape deck.
Meeting, the two friends hugged as the other soldiers looked up from
their beers and shot glasses.
It had been nearly a year since they arrived in Vietnam, and this
was one of the few weekends the two could meet on a break. They'd
been waiting it out, and now at long last it was time to down beers
and later slip into the brothels that lined the streets of Kontum.
Green introduced Sam to two buddies, Leon Fletcher and Ed Beck. For
days, Ken had been telling them about his time with "Crazy
Sam"-cruising the streets of Globe, Arizona, in Green's blue 1964
Chevelle SS, guzzling Ripple with the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"
crackling over the radio. And now, in this sad and near corner of
Southeast Asia, the two old friends were together again.
To most people, they were as opposite as they were close: Green was
boyish, good-looking, and cocky-the type of guy who could turn heads
in a crowded room. Ybarra was dark skinned, with a round, pockmarked
face-awkwardly shy unless he was drinking. But for all their
differences, they shared something in common: they were constantly
Green was known for his temper-quick to start fights with other
students at Globe High School, regardless of their age and size.
Though he stood only five feet, five inches, he rarely backed down.
Everyone knew to stay away from him. As a junior, Green had brutally
attacked another student who was a year older and a foot taller for
looking at him the wrong way in the hallway. Dozens of classmates
watched in horror as he pummeled the student senseless on the floor.
It took three teachers to pull him away.
Back home, on some summer nights, Green would sneak out of the house
with his .22 rifle and head for a ridge overlooking a dam on nearby
Lake Roosevelt. Patiently, he would wait for Sheriff Dutch Lake to
drive onto the roadway over the dam, and then Green would shoot out
the lights on the road before fleeing into the darkness. The sheriff
suspected it was Green but could never prove it. Nor could the
sheriff prove that Green was the one who rolled a boulder onto the
dirt runway at the tiny Lake Roosevelt airstrip, shutting down
flights for hours. By the time authorities arrived to remove the
large rock, Green and the two buddies who carried out the prank had
vanished. But they left their calling card on the boulder: the words
"Fuck You," painted in black.
His father, Melvin, was a laborer for the state highway department
who also ran Carson's Cafe, a diner on Lake Roosevelt. He was quick
to discipline his son for misbehaving, sometimes beating him in
front of his friends, but those beatings only made Green more
defiant. Once, his father grounded him for coming home with alcohol
on his breath, ordering him to work extra hours at the diner with
his sister and older brother. Instead of washing dishes, Green stole
his father's boat, later flipping the craft in a race on the other
side of the lake. The beatings that followed his pranks only seemed
to make him more aggressive, and by his late teens, he was getting
into fights almost weekly.
Ybarra was angry, but for more obvious reasons: he was painfully
aware of his own physical appearance and never felt accepted in the
small mining community that looked down on Mexicans and Native
Americans. Sam was burdened with the shame and angst of being a
"half-breed," and his longing for a father who had died when Ybarra
was five was profound. (Manuel Ybarra was a truck driver for the
Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company when he stopped at a bar on
the way home and was stabbed to death in a brawl.)
Besides getting into fights, he was arrested three times for
underage drinking and once for disorderly conduct. At sixteen, he
had dropped out of high school, guzzling beer and wine behind Mark's
or Pinky's-the two nightspots in town that catered to Native
Americans. He was too young to go inside, so he would wait outside
the door and ask elders from the reservation to buy him a Coors or a
pint of Thunderbird.
In Globe, Indians and whites weren't supposed to socialize. It had
been that way for generations. But by the 1960s, some of those rules
began to be challenged. Though Ybarra and others from the
reservation went to "Indian schools" during their grade-school years
in the 1950s, they were now attending the white public schools.
Whites and Indians were at this point playing on the same football
and basketball teams, and even joined in school dances. Still, the
older Indians would tell Ybarra to stay out of the white bar, The
Green and Ybarra didn't meet until high school, where they began
hanging out in the parking lot before classes. Though they came from
different worlds, they found something in common: they were angry
and were quick to pick fights. Ybarra was an outcast, and Green was
Their bond became deeper after Green began driving, and the two
started skipping school and drinking. "No one knows the shit that
Sam has gone through," Green told family members who tried to
discourage him from associating with Ybarra. It was them against the
world, as ferocious as suns.
And now, here they were in late May 1967, ten thousand miles from
home and oblivious to the soldiers around them in the bar. They
ordered Black Labels and toasted each other.
"At least we're both still alive," said Green.
The night before they had enlisted, the two friends had sat in
Green's car downing beers when they heard a radio broadcast about
the war. They began talking about joining the Army. Sam had
challenged his friend: "If you do it, I'll do it."
Green had agreed. As a boy growing up along Lake Roosevelt, he was
spellbound at the sight of the paratroopers dropping from the sky
during training exercises. And when Green and Ybarra hunted deer and
quail in the nature preserves near the lake, they often talked about
what it would be like to be soldiers. Besides, there was nothing for
them in Globe, except working in the copper mines. Ybarra knew all
about that life: his relatives had toiled underground for years, and
he didn't want any part of it.
The next day, they showed up at the local recruiting office and
enlisted under the Army's buddy system. Together they entered the
101st Airborne in January 1966 and, after jump training at Fort
Benning, Georgia, were sent to Vietnam, Ybarra in July and Green a
It had been about ten months since they arrived in Vietnam, leaving
behind their lives in Arizona, and for most of that period, they
were assigned to different units. Green was in a mortar platoon but
spent most of his time humping in the mountains in the heart of
South Vietnam with heavy equipment and only sporadic contact with
the enemy. Ybarra's experiences were different-and it showed even in
his uniform. Unlike the others in the lounge that night, he wasn't
wearing the traditional olive green. Instead, he was dressed in
tiger-striped fatigues and a soft-brimmed jungle cap, and he carried
his own sidearm and hunting knife.
Tiger Force, the 101st Airborne's version of Special Forces. Badass
of the badass.
Ybarra had actually been sent to a signal corps after arriving in
Vietnam, but quickly grew bored and asked to be transferred to the
Tigers in early 1967. He didn't regret his move. As soon as he
joined the platoon of forty-five men, he felt part of a special team
of soldiers who were treated differently than the grunts in the line
companies. He remembered the first time a battalion commander
addressed his platoon in Phan Rang: "You're the Tigers, men," he
reminded them before they went on a reconnaissance mission. "The
Tigers always get it done, no matter how many gooks you see." It was
an exceptional group that allowed no exceptions.
Tiger Force was founded in November 1965 by Major David Hackworth to
"outguerrilla the guerrillas," a platoon known as a "recondo unit"
because it was to carry out reconnaissance and commando functions.
The model for Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kilgore, Hackworth was a
hell-for-leather soldier of savage brilliance who had revealed
himself as a daring hero during the Korean War. In Vietnam, he had
realized that conventional warfare was a dead end. Following his
lead, his commanders found the best way to locate the new enemy was
to blend into the jungle terrain. That meant breaking into small
teams, donning camouflage, and carrying enough rations and supplies
to last several weeks. They would leave themselves behind.
Such was Hackworth's answer to an enemy that moved in intricate
underground tunnels and carried out hit-and-run tactics.
Beyond surveillance, the Tigers were often ordered to perform
impossible maneuvers, such as acting as a blocking unit for
retreating guerrilla forces and often relieving much larger line
companies trapped in firefights. In February 1966 at My Canh II, an
area covered by rice paddies and mountains in the Central Highlands,
the Tigers were trapped by a well-fortified enemy until the unit's
own commander, Lieutenant James Gardner, heroically charged three
bunkers. Gardner was killed, but his actions allowed his platoon to
escape, and he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. At Dak
To, a city just thirty-five kilometers from Laos, eleven Tigers were
killed on June 11, 1966, when they pursued a fleeing North
Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiment. In that case, as it would be often,
they had been the first unit sent to face the enemy. Let the other
guys mop up-the Tigers wanted fresh blood, even if it meant some of
it might be their own.
Only forty-five men were accepted in the Tigers, and that was only
after three months of combat experience and a screening process by
commanders that included a battery of questions, mostly centered on
the soldiers' willingness to kill.
Ybarra had impressed the officers. With cold, steely eyes, he said
he could kill without hesitation-using a knife, M16, or even his own
hands. It made no difference. Ever since jump school at Fort
Benning, Georgia, he had been looking for a home. He hated the
structure of the line companies-the chain of command, the rules, the
officers. The Tigers were different, part Green Beret, part line
company. They would break into small teams, two or three men at a
time, creep deep into the jungles, "and do whatever the hell you
want to do," he was fond of saying. When the commanders told him he
was accepted into the platoon, he was "thrilled."
After several rounds of beer, Sam sank down into his chair. There
was so much smoke in the lounge it was almost impossible to see
across the room. Not that there was anything special worth noticing.
The room was a typical makeshift military bar, with round
Formica-top tables, folding chairs, and thin wood walls built on a
raised bamboo platform, and filled with the stench of cigarettes and
whiskey. There were hundreds of these cheap versions of nightspots
in South Vietnam that were supposed to remind American soldiers of
the watering holes they left behind. The only prop in the lounge was
the flickering Black Label neon light dangling over the bar.
Ybarra guzzled the last of his beer, leaned over, and began telling
Green and the others about the Tigers' most recent battle. On May 15
Ybarra and the Tigers were called to a valley west of Duc Pho in the
heart of the Central Highlands-Quang Ngai province-where another
Army reconnaissance unit, the Hawks, was pinned down by enemy fire.
In the late morning, with a dozen Tiger Force soldiers at the bottom
of the valley, the enemy launched a surprise attack. "They were
fuckin' all over the place," Ybarra angrily recalled. Well-fortified
enemy bunkers at the top of the valley suddenly opened up, and NVA
soldiers began shelling the helpless Tigers below.
Led by the Tigers' commander, Lieutenant Gary Forbes, the platoon
members charged the bunkers but were forced down by a flurry of
mortars and .50-caliber machine-gun fire. For hours, the platoon was
at the bottom of the basin, dodging artillery, grenades, and bullet
fire. Tiger Force radioed for helicopters to evacuate the wounded,
but each time a chopper tried to land, it was forced to leave
because of enemy artillery. One helicopter was able to land in a
rice paddy but was immediately hit by fire and destroyed.
By early afternoon, Tiger Force was no closer to escaping and was
running low on ammunition. But the platoon finally caught a break
when the soldiers found a new position and were able to call in
American air strikes without being hit. For two hours, U.S. jets
dropped bombs on the bunkers. The combination of air strikes and the
arrival of some additional American troops allowed the Tigers to
escape. By the end of the day, two were dead and twenty-five
wounded. For some of the injured, including Lieutenant Forbes, the
war was over.
Because of the losses, Sam admitted the Tigers "were down" and
unable to go back out on maneuvers until they could find
reinforcements. The battalion officers were trying to bring in new
volunteers. Now Ybarra did his part. He turned to Green. "You need
to come with me, Kenny. You need to be a Tiger."
Green always knew when Ybarra was serious; his smile would disappear
and his eyes would narrow. He had seen the look many times before,
and he saw it now.
Vietnam in early 1967 was still vastly different from what it was to
become at year's end. There was still a sense of patriotism that had
not yet been eroded by the bitterness of the Tet Offensive and
casualties that would soon turn most Americans against the war.
Until now, most of the conflict had been marked by skirmishes and,
if not wild optimism, at least a sense of inevitable triumph.
Through most of the conversation, Green's friend Leon Fletcher was
quiet. But after several minutes, he grew agitated. "You don't want
to join these guys, Kenny," he said. "You're going to get yourself
Fletcher had looked up to Green. Ken had been the one who took the
time to show Leon the basics of survival, from throwing him to the
ground during sniper attacks to teaching him how to avoid booby
traps. And now Fletcher thought it was time to return the favor.
Green was quiet for a moment, and then he turned to Fletcher. "At
this point, I just want to kill a lot of them. My job is to kill."
Ed Beck joined in. After several months in South Vietnam, he was
looking for real action-not just maneuvers or air strikes with no
real targets. He had come to Vietnam to escape, not just from the
boring western suburbs of Chicago but from a wife who was making his
life miserable. "How do we get in?" he asked.
Before Ybarra could answer, Fletcher interrupted again. "You guys
are crazy. You're supposed to be trying to stay alive. Why do you
want to join a fucking recon unit?"
Ybarra quickly cut him off. "Look, man, stay out of this," he said,
jabbing a finger at Fletcher. "Don't be telling Kenny what he's
going to do. We go way back." There was not a trace of friendliness
in his comment.
Ybarra's anger may have been what Green most admired, especially
when his fury involved protecting Ken's right to do whatever the
hell he wanted to do. Green turned to his friend. "I'm in, man. Tell
me what I need to do."
"If you're going, I'm going," Beck said.
For Green and Beck, it was their way of finally taking part. Like so
many others in the bar that night, they had been in high school when
the first U.S. fighting units arrived in Da Nang in March 1965, and
had watched the television reports of a war that was supposed to
stop the spread of Communism.
Excerpted from "Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War" by Michael Sallah. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Sallah. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.