By: Randy Tucker

He played low post for the Tigers. At 6’6”, David Orbell was the big man on his McKeesport High School basketball team.

A short three years later, he was leading troops in the central highlands of Vietnam.

Orbell graduated in 1964 and enrolled in the electronics program at Penn Tech in Pittsburgh. He graduated with a two-year associates degree in electronics and was about to finish his third year with National Tube in his hometown when the induction letter arrived.

“It came on May 23, 1967,” Orbell said. “My 21st birthday.”

In the pre-lottery days, Orbell was given a deferment by his local draft board while attending technical school. That deferment expired, and he reported to Ft. Jackson, South Carolina for basic training.

“After nine weeks in training, I received orders to be an MP,” Orbell said. “But the guy I was supposed to go with went AWOL, and they reassigned me to heavy weapons infantry at Ft. Polk, 11 Bravo 20.”

‘Killers with All Kinds of Weapons’
Heavy weapons included mortars, and Orbell became very familiar with them over the next two years, but on the receiving end. There were too many in heavy weapons at Ft. Polk, so his orders were changed to light weapons, 11B10.

“We trained on 45s, M-16s, M-60s, .50 cal, bazookas, and the M79-LAW,” Orbell said. “We learned to set booby traps, use a radio, and fight hand-to-hand. By the time we left there, we were killers with all kinds of weapons after nine weeks at Tiger Land.”

After a 30-day leave back home to North Huntingdon, Orbell was reassigned to a replacement company assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 8th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division, the Iron Brigade of Civil War fame.

He began in country training at Pleiku.

“We were in an open-air barracks. They gave us drawstring fatigues and a jacket,” Orbell said. “That’s what you had to wear for weeks at a time over the next year you were there. They gave us an M-16 and our equipment, too.”

The Battle of Dak To
For $185 a month, including $65 for combat pay, a soldier carried a rucksack, poncho, machete, four hand grenades, an M-16, a GI-can opener, a mess kit, drinking cup, 20 empty sand bags, a steel helmet, folding shovel, four to six canteens, three to four C-rations, bladder bag, pit liner, gloves, and sunglasses, with spare magazines or bandoliers of ammunition, depending on your weapon, on foot through the Vietnamese countryside.

After a couple of weeks, a convoy took the outfit to a forward fire base at Dak To.

“They had an airstrip, chopper pad, and a big fuel bladder filled with JP 4 jet fuel,” Orbell said. “We had perimeter guard, mess halls, rolls of concertina wire, artillery, tanks, and gunships. They flew those little Lotus, Huey, and Chinook choppers out of there along with C123 Caribous.”

The area was a former tea plantation from French colonial days and inhabited by the Montagnard people.

“The Montagnards were friendly people,” Orbell said. “They lived up in the mountains in thatch roofed huts until the U.S. gave them metal roofs.”

The convoy had arrived ahead of Orbell, and when he flew in the base looked empty. The company had just been in the battle of Dak To.

“I got off the helicopter and there was no one around,” Orbell said. “Everybody was hidden in a bamboo thicket; we were under attack.”

The Listening Posts
His first assignment was at a listening post on the perimeter of the fire base, a job long on patience and short on security.

“We were supposed to listen for enemy activity in the pitch black and set off signal flares if we heard them coming in,” Orbell said. “We set up claymores, but you had to be careful, the VC or NVA would turn them around in the dark, and if you set them off, you’d get hit with 700 of those little ball bearings inside.”

The listening posts were on the perimeter of four combat platoons and a head quarters company. Each platoon had to assign two men to listening posts every night.

“You filed situations reports on the radio. If you didn’t call in, they called you until you answered,” Orbell said. “Mosquitoes, pitch black – and if the trip flares went off, it gave your position away. We were two on and two off with one guy sleeping for two hours while the other guy listened in the dark.”

25 Combat Assaults with Helicopters
One morning he set out on patrol, a job he kept up non-stop for the next nine months.

“We moved out in a diamond pattern,” Orbell said. “Point man with a machete cutting a new path off the established trail with the point squad behind him. We had squads to the left and right and one in the rear with HQ in the middle with officers and senior NCOs.”

The first day out, they came on the bloated, rotting corpses of a pair of NVA soldiers. They took the guns off the dead NVA and moved forward.

“We went on recon patrols for weeks in the Central Highlands, and they pulled us out after a while,” Orbell said. “We had 25 combat assaults with helicopters. They’d fly us in with four helicopters and three gunships supporting us on the perimeter. We’d hit a hot LZ, and the gunships would open up with rockets and .50 cal. machine gun fire. We’d form a perimeter, and they’d keep bringing in men. You never knew what you were getting into. You carried food and water in a .30 cal. ammo can and kept bug spray in your helmet liner.”

With the perimeter established, claymores and signal flares set and barbed wire in place, it was time to start sending out patrols.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].