|Name:||James Douglas "Jim" Birchim|
|Unit:||Special Operations Augmentation, Military Assistance Command, Studies and Observation Group, Command and Control North, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces Kontum, South Vietnam|
|Date of Birth:||16 July 1946 (Culver City, CA)|
|Home of Record:||Independence, CA|
|Date of Loss:||15 November 1968|
|Country of Loss:||South Vietnam|
Click coordinates to view maps
|Status in 1973:||Killed/Body Not Recovered|
|Other Personnel In Incident:||Frank L. Belletire, Ngo van Chien, Mlang, Bang, Tok, Teo and Beng (rescued); Nam, Mlon, Hlur and Phier (missing)|
SYNOPSIS: MACV-SOG, or Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group, was a joint service high command unconventional warfare task force engaged in highly classified operations throughout Southeast Asia. The 5th Special Forces channeled personnel into MACV-SOG (though it was not a Special Forces group) through Special Operations Augmentation (SOA), which provided their "cover" while under secret orders to MACV-SOG. These teams performed deep penetration missions of strategic reconnaissance and interdiction that were called, depending on the time frame, "Shining Brass," "Daniel Boone," "Salem House" or "Prairie Fire" missions.
On 13 November 1968, then 1st Lt. Birchim, team leader; SP4 Frank L. Belletire, assistant team leader; Montagnard team members Nam, interpreter; Sgt. Ngo van Chien, Hlur, Phier, Mlon, Mlang, Bang, Tok, Teo, and Beng, riflemen; comprised the 12-man Reconnaissance Team (RT) New Hampshire. The team was operating from Forward Operations Base 2 (FOB 2), Kontum, South Vietnam and its mission was to conduct a long range reconnaissance patrol (LLRP) into a denied area of Laos west of Ben Het to find and rescue RT Vermont, another recon team that had been inserted earlier that day.
On 14 November, the enemy conducted many "recon by fire" missions to the west of their position in an attempt to smoke out the surviving members of RT Vermont who were successfully escaping and evading capture. On the morning of 15 November, 1st Lt. Birchim received orders to continue the search for RT Vermont. As they moved farther west through dense jungle, the members of RT New Hampshire heard enemy voices. Before breaking for lunch, the team also heard a bamboo signaling device go off to the north of their position. At the same time, the point man claimed he saw enemy soldiers who evidently did not see them.
After lunch, the team proceeded westward staying on the north side of a hill. 1st Lt. Birchim decided to change direction and turned north. The team proceeded downhill into a dry streambed, and then up the other side. At 1430 hours, RT New Hampshire reached the top of the hill and was promptly ambushed. The NVA opened fire with automatic weapons and grenades. According to Sgt. Chien, "1st Lt. Birchim used hand and arm signals to tell him that Interpreter Nam was hit in the chest and dead." The rest of the team retreated down the hill they had just come up and into the streambed.
As he reached the bottom of the gully, Jim Birchim slipped and fell breaking his ankle. With the aid of SP4 Belletire and the Montagnards, 1st Lt. Birchim and the others, climbed back up the hill they had originally come down. About half way up the hill, SP4 Belletire made radio contact with the Forward Air Controller (FAC) circling overhead apprising him of the situation including the fact that the team was being surrounded by approximately 25 NVA and requested both air strikes to suppress the NVA action and an emergency extraction.
By 1500 hours, fighter aircraft arrived onsite to provide close air support for the embattled team. Weather conditions in the region included overcast clouds and rain. The FAC immediately marked enemy positions and directed the fighters to begin their attack runs on those identified targets. After coming under NVA fire once again, RT New Hampshire was forced to split up in order to escape and evade to a designated area for extraction.
At roughly 1600 hours, Jim Birchim and Frank Belletire moved together toward a small LZ located approximately 500 meters to the east. And as they did, they found Beng. Sgt. Chien joined them shortly thereafter as they again came under attack from enemy small arms and grenades. SP4 Belletire immediately radioed for another air strike. Because the NVA was no more than 50 meters away and rapidly closing on their position, he directed that the strike be right on top of the team. The air strike was successful in either killing or driving the NVA away from the beleaguered survivors.
By 1800 hours, it was becoming extremely dark as night approached and light rain continued to fall. The members of RT New Hampshire had only one chance for an extraction attempt. The FAC directed the team members to a designated LZ while extraction aircraft, call sign "Gladiator," circled nearby in a holding pattern. Mlang, Bang, Tok and Teo successfully reached the fairly large clearing. The first Huey immediately landed in it and the four men raced to the waiting helicopter.
Frank Belletire and Jim Birchim, Chien and Beng were still some distance away from the LZ. Rather then wait until they could reach the larger LZ, the second Huey hovered at an altitude of 100 to 120 feet over a small hole in the jungle canopy where Chien, Beng, Frank Belletire and Jim Birchim were located. The helicopter's crewchief and door gunner dropped McGuire extraction rigs through the jungle to four men on the ground. 3 of the rigs reached the ground, but the forth hung up in the trees. 1st Lt. Birchim ensured that Chien and Beng were each secured into rigs dangling from one side of the Huey. Each of the team members had suffered grenade fragmentation wounds during the running gun battle with the NVA. The two Americans, who were not seriously wounded, climbed into the third rig dangling from the other side and secured themselves to it as best they could. As the helicopter lifted the men up and out of the foliage, they were dragged and bumped through the trees nearly dislodging all of them.
According to WO1 Carl Hoeck, the aircraft commander of Gladiator 342, after dropping the McGuire rigs "We were given the signal to lift off by the one barely visible person on the ground. It was later we learned that ground radio contact had been lost due to a disconnected microphone on the ground radio." Immediately upon climbing for altitude, WO1 Hoeck realized they were in the clouds and had to fly only by instruments. He continued, "IFR flight was nearly impossible due to the swinging load. Control of the aircraft was lost and regained several times. Approximately 30 to 40 minutes later we broke out of the storm. The crew noted that all four ropes seemed taut and loaded on climbout. Upon touchdown at Kontum Airfield, it was noted that only three personnel remained on the rigs. It is my opinion that the other person fell from his sling at some point in the flight."
Frank Belletire provided additional information in his after action debriefing report stating that after being extracted and dragged through the trees, "he and Jim Birchim became unseated with SP4 Belletire hanging in the McGuire rig head down and 1st Lt. Birchim on his back." Due to total darkness and flying through a rainstorm, the Huey's aircrew was unable to see the predicament the two men were in. SP4 Belletire's statement continued, "We hung onto each other for an estimated 30 to 45 minutes. At that point we were both in extreme pain. I was semi-conscious, and remember the Lieutenant moving around. The Lieutenant and I were both trying to get comfortable. Somewhere between grabbing and moving around I felt the Lieutenant slip down my body. He was down to my foot, and then gone. I attempted to follow the Lieutenant (the pain was so extreme), but the rig wrapped around my arm and neck. I blacked out. The next thing I remember was being at the Kontum airport. The Lieutenant fell out after we were out of the storm."
After reviewing all information provided by the Huey's aircrew and Frank Belletire, military intelligence personnel believed Jim Birchim fell from a height of about 1500 to 2000 feet into jungle covered mountains located just north of Highway QL14, approximately 6 miles north-northwest of Dak To, 14 miles east-northeast of the tri-border area where South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia join, 31 miles north-northwest of Kontum airfield and 33 miles northeast of RT Vermont's ambush location, Kontum Province, South Vietnam. Due to the nature of the terrain and the distance traveled by the Huey from point of extraction to Kontum Airfield, a distance of 48 miles, no additional search effort was conducted.
Jim Birchim was initially listed Missing in Action until an Army Board of Inquiry was completed on 14 December 1968. On 10 May 1971, his status was changed to Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered. As for the members of RT Vermont, only SP4 William Copley was not extracted. He was listed Missing in Action at the time the formal search for him was terminated.
For every insertion like this one that was detected and stopped, dozens of others safely slipped past NVA lines to strike a wide range of targets and collect vital information. The number of MACV-SOG missions conducted with Special Forces reconnaissance teams into Laos and Cambodia was 452 in 1969. It was the most sustained American campaign of raiding, sabotage and intelligence gathering waged on foreign soil in US military history. MACV-SOG's teams earned a global reputation as one of the most combat effective deep-penetration forces ever raised.
Jim Birchim was a seasoned soldier who was well trained and very capable of surviving under adverse conditions. If he died as a result of the fall from altitude, he has the right to have his remains returned to his family, friends and country if at all humanly possible. For other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, their fate could be quite different.
Since the end of the Vietnam War well over 21,000 reports of American prisoners, missing and otherwise unaccounted for have been received by our government. Many of these reports document LIVE America Prisoners of War remaining captive throughout Southeast Asia TODAY.
Military men in Vietnam were called upon to fight in many dangerous circumstances, and they were prepared to be wounded, killed or captured. It probably never occurred to them that they could be abandoned by the country they so proudly served.