Murdock completed his OCS in January, 1966. He was given leave to go home and be paraded around the neighbors, and then had to report to Fort Wolters, Texas, for the first phase of flight training. He felt very, very lucky that the Army was in need of pilots; he could've been on his way to a foxhole in the jungle.
The first time he saw the helicopters they would be flying, he almost laughed. They looked like toys compared to the one he'd seen at the state fair. He soon learned they didn't act like toys. Murdock did laugh as he told me how he "sweat like a butcher" trying to hover. It was easy to understand why the base had a huge maintenance area.
Murdock made it through Wolters without too many disasters, and was immediately transferred to Fort Rucker for Phase II of his training. It was here that the pilots eventually left the "toys" behind, and actually started training in the Hueys they would fly in Vietnam. And Vietnam was looming in the very near future. Nothing brought that home more than those last four weeks of training. The instructors during that time were all Vietnam vets, and they tried to instill every ounce of their experience into the fledgling pilots, teaching them the " 'Nam way" of flying.
Murdock wasn't dumb. He intended to come home in one piece, and paid special attention to everything the veterans showed him. He completed his flight training in November, 1966, and received his orders. He would be in Vietnam by the end of the year, the newest member of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. The Thunderbirds.
John had not been happy for some time. After the president's assassination, he had been transferred from his original assignment to sort through all the reports and rumors flying through the Pentagon pipelines. As vital as the work was, pushing papers around for days and weeks and months was not why John had gone into the military. Every day he would arrive home, to his small apartment, and watch the news. And every day at work he would speak with a few of the people who would be totally honest with him. And every time he looked at the boxes of telexes and files on his desk, he knew where he needed to be.
Like many things John wasn't supposed to know but did, Project Leaping Lena came to his attention in late June of 1964. It's timing - and dismal outcome - gave him the excuse he had been looking for. It still took some persuading, not to mention a threat to resign his commission, before John had his wish. By October, he was on his way to Nha Trang, to work with the revamped Leaping Lena - now called Project Delta.
It wasn't quite what he expected, of course. The mistrust between the Americans and the indigenous project members was a constant strain. The South Vietnamese Special Forces were not as "enthused" about their assignments as the Americans. Desertion was high, pilfering constant, and an outright mutiny had to be dealt with before the project was finally settled in place. But for the next two years, John found he was in his element - working with small groups of men, outwitting enemy patrols, bringing back information that saved lives and harassed the North Vietnamese.
John could not say he loved it, but rather, he found it "satisfying". Until January of 1966.
January 28, 1966, the First Air Cavalry Division embarked on Operation Masher. (The name was later changed to Operation White Wing, because President Johnson thought Masher sounded too "crude".) It was the largest search and destroy mission since the beginning of the war. BA's group, the 7th Cavalry, were dropped near Cu Nghi. The Third Brigade had been on a streak of bad luck already - only days before, they'd lost over forty men in a plane crash, and a Chinook had gone down that very morning. It was the rainy season, wet, foggy. And because the LZ was so close to the village and nearby cemetery, there had been no advance artillery fire to prepare the area.
Before they could even complete the landing, two battalions of NVA were firing on them. Soldiers took off in every direction, trying to find cover, some in among the palm trees, some in the rice paddies. Helicopters were attempting to land more troops, but took heavy fire from the Viet Cong. They had to drop troops wherever they could, furthering the wide scattering of soldiers. Rain started coming down hard, making air support impossible. Darkness fell, and the men tried to regroup. The North Vietnamese used the rain and darkness to try infiltrating. It was, to quote one officer, "a hornet's nest".
The next day, the rain let up enough for bombers to come in and the enemy dispersed. Reinforcements arrived and the Americans were finally able to start moving ahead. It took three days, seventy plus dead and over 200 wounded, to clear the area.
It was during a rest stop that the soldiers learned what had happened the day before their own insertion into the area. Project Delta groups had gone in just to the north, into the An Lao Valley, for recon. “Charging Charlie” Beckwith, newest commander of Project Delta, did not include any South Vietnamese SF soldiers, as was standard procedure. The weather was bad, air support was limited due to anti-aircraft guns, intelligence about the area was unconfirmed. Not to mention that Beckwith, along with those in charge of Operation Masher, had ignored the advice given by the outgoing commander to stay out of the An Lao Valley. It had belonged to the enemy since 1958. Of the seventeen Americans who had gone in, three were wounded, three were missing, and four were dead.
Operation Masher/White Wing would go on for another thirty-nine days.