Breeding and wife, Pat, 15 year Ruidoso residents, recently hosted a reunion of several of the men who served under his command. Breeding was honored by the Lincoln County Commission with Resolution 2011-36 recognizing his valiant leadership and the ultimate sacrifice given by many in the battalion. Personal friend Commissioner Tom Battin was on hand to deliver the resolution and to offer the county’s thanks to the men who were there. The Ruidoso Free Press was privileged to attend and speak with the visiting men of the second battalion and their families.
Previously serving two tours in Okinawa and Japan, Breeding (named “The Skipper” by his men) remembers his first moments of in-country time before heading to Khe Sanh. After getting squared away, he was taken to Colonel David Lownds who was finishing a briefing of what was expected in the days to come. Lownds to Breeding: “We will hold Khe Sanh at all costs, won’t we, Captain Breeding?” Breeding replied, “As long as Echo Company is here, Khe Sanh will hold.” And on February 5, 1968, hold they did. Against horrific conditions and all odds.
Historians of Khe Sanh and Project Niagara noted, “American tactics were to allow the enemy to surround the 26th Marine Regiment, to mass their forces, reveal troop formations and logistic routes, establish storage and assembly areas and prepare siege works.” The men of Echo Company were sitting ducks. Breeding recalls, “Every single one of my troopers was good. I was blessed with guys who graduated in the middle – down to earth.” The men realized they were there to do a job, regardless of the seeming hopelessness. The men were never told why. Orders were meant to be followed, not questioned.
Jose Luis Reyes, Jr., (who goes by Cisco) was a drummer for a band before he was a Marine. He played with several who eventually found their way into other bands, such as Earth, Wind, and Fire. Before Salsa music had a name, Cisco was playing at local events, supplying a dance beat and enjoying life.
Cisco remembers his first hours in Khe Sanh. “The skipper told me, ‘Do your job, remember your training, don’t you ever fall asleep on me, and you’ll do fine.’ and he was right!” Cisco says he was a “tunnel rat” and tells the story of when his buddies, amid surrounding gunfire, pulled him quickly out of a tunnel he was checking towing a snake in the process. Dreams of his band faded; nightmares of living in a battlefield became reality.
Showers on Hill 861 A were only a dream during the days of occupation. Men went as long as 77 days without
washing which often left their skin infested with crab lice. Treatment while on the hill, consisting of applying a medicated mud-paste, did little to alleviate the itching and pain. Clothing literally rotted off the troops as they spent months living in hand dug trenches. The phrase, “Home is where you dig it” became their motto.
Some of the men traded the shreds of their clothing for those found on dead soldiers to simply stay clothed. The men recall that since everyone carried a horrible odor, the stench became common and at times, unnoticed.
In some Vietnamese areas 100% humidity in 90-plus degree temperatures was the norm. Frequent monsoonal rains, mosquitoes and rats became normal parts of many soldiers’ days and nights. Those on Hill 861 A spent their time entrenched, hoping to see another dawn. Dreams of beds, sheets, blankets and a roof faded; trench became home.
Jim Kaylor, who was 18 at the beginning of his tour says,” Not one day has ever gone by that I don't have fleeting or intrusive thoughts about Vietnam. When I came home I was 19 1/2.”
“Our daily lives consisted of constant toil to build our fortifications which consisted of digging trenches, secondary trenches, connecting trenches, digging and constructing underground bunkers, and stringing barb wire fences with rolled concertina wire to our front. We also placed explosive obstacles in front of our positions which included improvised explosive devices, anti-personnel mines.” Kaylor remembers those daily moments clearly even close to fifty years later.
Adequate sleep was rarely achieved. Dozing occurred occasionally, keeping one ear open for enemy advancement. And advance they did. There were times trenches were shared with the dead as well as those wounded or alive.
David Douglas Duncan, WWII Marine veteran and a photojournalist at the time, has preserved these moments in several published books. “War Without Heroes” contains a section devoted to Hill 861 A and Breeding’s fighting men. Hundreds of photos in the book depict the weariness many of the troops faced while their feet were on Vietnamese soil. Breeding recalls the moment Duncan stepped off a helicopter into the fray.
“Who the hell are you?” Breeding saw a long-haired, civilian jump out of the helo and knew he’d be in the way. “Duncan, sir,” said Duncan and Breeding recognized the name. He gave him carte blanche to photo-document the hill and Duncan’s books, still available, are the accurate result of his efforts.
Breeding, when asked if there’s a movie which accurately depicts those moments in his troops’ lives, responds, “None of ‘em. There’s not one film which tells the whole story.”
What was Pat Breeding doing while the Skipper was half a planet away? Along with tens of thousands of other family members in the late ‘60’s, Pat depended on the media for information about Vietnam and her man. Pat remembers vividly that February day she read in the newspaper that Hill 861 A had been overrun by PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam). She recalls reading the sentence, “It’s unclear if there are any survivors.”
She wasn’t about to take those words literally and hammered the phone lines to find accurate answers. The Ruidoso Free Press will continue her story and of the men of Echo Company.