BA was initially assigned to C Company, Command Control North, in Da Nang. He had the advantage of already knowing what to expect from Vietnam. He was a little more concerned about his new unit. From a letter to his cousin:
"I never seen a bunch like this before. Heard plenty about them, from before. And at Bragg, seen them a few times. Told you about that - how everybody would suddenly talk softer when any of the Fifth guys come around. Out here, you see some guys walking around with no patches, insignias, not even their bars. Now and again, though, some guy's strutting around like a peacock. This guy I met, been with the unit forever, said those are some special group. They aren't supposed to wear any ID, but the local soldiers like all the flash, so sometimes they wear their stuff just to keep the morale up. It's strange.
"And that bird colonel? Found out he's been putting in paperwork for me. Like I need him for a handout. But I got here to Da Nang and got told to just set until my new orders come through. So that's what I'm doing."
BA finally got his assignment, and that's all he was able to tell his family. Everything else was classified. He was supposed to report to the SF camp at Thuong Duc on February first, but his trip was delayed. In the early morning hours of January 30, 1968, Da Nang got its first taste of the Tet Offensive.
After action reports state that BA and two others were injured when a hut they took refuge in was destroyed during the first shelling. The other two men were Darnell Fritzinger and Terry Bollea. BA and Terry were sent to Saigon because of their head injuries, which fortunately turned out to be no more than concussions. BA and Terry would become good friends, and stayed in touch as much as was possible afterwards.
I managed to track down Sergeant Fritzinger, who had received minor wounds and had been treated at Da Nang. Part of our conversation follows:
T: Darnell, neither Sergeant Baracus nor Sergeant Bollea mentioned your being in the hut with them.
F: I don't think they knew I was there. I'd run in there when everything hit the fan, and was crouched down in the corner, trying to load my M-16, y'know, like that would do any good against shells. Anyway, they come bustin in a couple minutes later, just before the first blast. They didn't have time to look around 'fore it hit.
T: There's been some question as to whether Baracus pushed Bollea out of the way, and thus saved his life, or if it was the other way around. Do you recall the details at all?
F (laughing): Pushed? Hell, lady, didn't either one of them push the other. That first blast buckled the front wall, knocked the damn door right off the hinges. That's the only thing did any pushing. Hit 'em like a truck. Good thing, too, 'cause if that door hadn't knocked 'em down like it did, that second blast woulda killed 'em both. That's the one knocked the whole damn place to hell. I only made it cause a beam came down at an angle right in front of me. (laughs some more) They oughta give that door a medal!
I think it's just as well neither BA nor Terry (now "Hulk Hogan") remembered Sergeant Fritzinger.
BA and Terry walked out of the hospital a day later, into chaos. The VC had been infiltrating the city for weeks, maybe months, bringing weapons in in caskets and vegetable wagons, and the fighting was street to street, house to house. The two men were almost immediately commandeered by an officer, and separated. It was almost two weeks later that BA was finally able to return to Da Nang and his new posting with Project Delta.
John had been very busy since his return to Vietnam. It grated on his nerves that officers of his rank were not allowed in combat. He would say later that there were times he thought he was still back at the Pentagon, for all the paper pushing he was doing. In the end, it was the unique organization of the Special Forces, and Project Delta itself, that allowed him some measure of freedom. That, and a knack for talking people into things. His superiors soon found he was excellent at "fact-finding", and he was soon traveling around Vietnam with various Delta units, seeing how they worked. Within a very short while, John was traveling outside Vietnam, into Cambodia and Laos. He was never in charge, but he found the men who were, were more than willing to listen to his 'suggestions' - as long as he realized they were suggestions.
There had been a lot of movement from the NVA and VC, and in January, John was on another fact-finding job. He was dropped off in Laos, at the site of the Bataillon Voluntaire 33, or BV-33. Their job was to watch and report on the activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and they had been very busy. John didn't like being the lone American. He had a smattering of Thai, and had been assured there would be an interpreter, still...Things were dicey enough going into Laos. He preferred having people with him he could trust. It was of little comfort that the SF camp at Lang Vei was only a few miles across the border. It was still across the border.
The days before January 21 were hectic. There was almost too much activity to keep up with, and it was obvious the "something big" they'd expected was about to start. John listened as the radio worked overtime, smiling at the BV-33's call sign - Elephant. It was about the only thing, he told me later, that did make him smile. When they learned the attack on Khe Sanh had actually begun, he knew, as did everyone else, that "Elephant" was in big trouble. BV-33 was an important source of American intelligence on the NVA - no way would they be left alone at this point. And unfortunately, there was no way for John to get out. With everything else going on, one nameless soldier in the "wrong place" was the least of the Army's worries.
On January 24, it was overcast, lousy weather for any air support. It didn't take long for the men at BV-33 to realize the NVA were taking advantage of that. The American artillery was controlled by the Marines out of Khe Sanh - but the NVA were moving too quickly for the relay of information on their positions to do any good. The bombers carrying napalm were controlled by the FACs - but they couldn't see because of the cloud cover. Even Lang Vei was unable to help - they had no available helicopters. It was the first time the NVA used tanks in battle, and, after a short and intense conference between John and the BV-33 commander, it was decided they would have to abandon their camp and head along Hwy 9 for Lang Vei. Easier said than done. Besides just under 300 BV-33 personnel, they also had 200 native Meo troops, and over 2300 civilians. Luckily, the weather cleared and they received aerial support to keep the NVA from following too closely.
It was at Lang Vei that John was reminded of one of the long-standing problems with this whole war. The Laotian commander refused to "parlay" with the American captain in charge of Lang Vei. He wanted to speak with an equal. The Americans, in turn, were suspicious of the Laotians, having heard rumors that they were playing both sides of the fence. John, of course, was not even supposed to be there, so he just shook his head and let the two groups bicker it out. Eventually, a lieutenant colonel arrived from Da Nang to deal with the situation.
John finally laughed when he told me about his meeting with the new man.
"He asked me who I was - apparently MACV had managed to keep their mouths shut about me. So I made the mistake of saying, 'I just came along with the Elephants.' One time I really wish I'd kept my mouth shut. He knew immediately I wasn't supposed to be there, officially, so he just nodded and said, 'Okay, Hannibal, you can take my chopper back to Da Nang.' More than a few guys heard it, including the pilot, and the next things I knew, it was all over headquarters."
Just a few days after Hannibal left, starting February 7, the NVA attacked Lang Vei. The same tanks were again brought to bear against a camp ill-equipped to deal with them. What anti-tank equipment the camp had malfunctioned. They used whatever they could, including climbing onto the tanks and throwing grenades inside. In the end, the camp was overrun, but seven of the nine tanks had been disabled.
Later, John would learn that the Marine in charge of Khe Sanh had refused to implement the contingency plan to rescue Lang Vei, as he was afraid it was an ambush. Finally, General Westmoreland had to order the Marines to provide support for the SF helicopters that rescued the survivors. Of the 24 Americans at Lang Vei, ten were dead or missing and eleven were wounded.