Colonel Kenneth G. Carlson graduated the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1966, launching a twenty-six year career in the Army. Among his honors are two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Stars (one for Valor), and a Purple Heart. The story below is selected from his interview with the West Point Center for Oral History. Colonel Carlson died on August 2, 2022.
Written by Ken Carlson
In 1968, I arrived in Vietnam and was placed in command of A Troop, 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment in Dong Ha, as close to the DMZ as you could get without being in North Vietnam. We had 318 men and 44 combat vehicles, not including the wheeled stuff.
They attached me to a Tank Battalion, but official orders didn’t always match what happened on the ground, and my assignment unofficially changed about four days after I took command.
That’s when a helicopter landed in our area with the Commander of the Third Marine Division, Major General Ray Davis.
Davis had received the Navy Cross in World War II and Medal of Honor in Korea. I think he also had a couple Silver Stars and Bronze Stars with V’s for Valor. But I didn’t know any of this at the time.
“Ken Carlson, I haven’t met you yet but I’ve heard a lot about you,” Davis said upon approach. “Now listen,” he continued, “you’ve got a unit that moves faster with more firepower than anything I’ve got in my Division, and anything you’ve got in your Brigade.”
He went on to say he wanted to call on A Troop in case of emergency. The term “9-1-1” didn’t exist in 1968, but that’s what he meant, a rapid response team with armor.
“You’re going to be my fire truck. Whenever I call you, you turn on the red lights and just move like hell.”
“Sir, how will I know what the mission is?” I asked.
”My operation shop will call you and tell you what needs to be done. But if you ever have a question, here’s my card.”
Davis reached into his fatigues and pulled out a business card. And on the back of it, he wrote his frequency and personal call sign, “Sudden Death 66.”
“I normally only give this to Battalion Commanders, but I’m giving it to you. So you call me if there’s a problem, okay?”
And with that, the General handed me a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.” I could skip the Chain of Command and call a two-star directly if need be.
General Ray Davis, Vietnam, 1968
Our Troop did a lot of work along the DMZ. This was just after the Battle of Khe Sanh, where 20,000 North Vietnamese regulars laid siege to 6,000 Marines on a remote outpost atop a plateau that was a little more than a square mile large. The Marines were cut off from resupply and were living underground, like animals. Eventually the siege was broken and the base abandoned, and our job was to patrol down Highway 9 past the Khe Sanh plateau in a show of force to remind the enemy we were still around. We’d move all the way to the Laotian border and back.
On one comeback mission, I got a call from the Marine Headquarters that said, “Stop at Khe Sanh. We’ve got a mission for you.”
“What is the mission?” I asked.
“When the Marines evacuated, they left their mines unexploded, and so we want you to go out and blow up their mines.”
I asked if there were any maps available to guide our disposal efforts.
“Marines don’t make maps,” was the reply.
We weren’t engineers, I told HQ. How did they expect us to find the mines?
“Drive your combat vehicles around the perimeter of Khe Sanh and start exploding the mines.”
That didn’t sound like a good idea to me, but I agreed to try it.
Within minutes of starting the operation, mines blew the road wheels off two Armored Personnel Carriers. I decided to switch to heavier tanks. But then an anti-tank mine shattered the idle arm assembly of one of our M48 tanks.
“That’s it,” I ordered. “Cease work. I’m calling the Division.” I called the Marine Colonel in charge of their operations shop.
“I’m not exploding any more mines on Khe Sanh,” I told the Colonel. “I just medevaced one of my tank drivers. I’m not going to blow up my entire Cavalry Troop in order to clear these mines.”
“This is a legal order, Captain,” the Colonel responded.
“I’m not doing it,” I said firmly.
With the conversation ending on a sour note, I decided to pull out my Sudden Death 66 card.
“Sir, this is . . . “ I stammered before General Davis interrupted, “Ken, how you doing?”
“Not very well, sir,” I responded. “I’ve got an order from Ops. I was ordered to blow up perimeter mines at Khe Sanh by driving over them with my vehicles.”
“Who is the stupid a-hole who told you to do that?” Davis demanded.
“Sir, I don’t know the man personally, but it was somebody from your Operations shop. My tanks started hitting mines, so I told him I was stopping.”
“Well, thank goodness you told him that. I’ll fix it.”
The general quickly changed the subject.
“I’ve got another mission for you. Collect up your guys and then head down Highway 9 until you get to these coordinates. Then, turn north to the DMZ. Don’t cross the Ben Hai River. Stay in South Vietnam.”
Davis continued, “There’s a huge, dry rice paddy there, and I want you to set your Troop up in a perimeter around that paddy, vehicles facing out.”
“Sir, what’s the mission?” I asked.
“Just set up the perimeter. That’s all I can tell you right now.”
So, that’s what we did. My lieutenant was perplexed. “Sir, what’s the mission?”
“Stand by,” I told him. “This is directly from Sudden Death 66, so we’re doing it.”
We made our way to the DMZ, found the rice paddy, just as described, and set up our armored perimeter. Then, a Marine CH-46 helicopter approached and landed in the middle of our circle. The back ramp dropped, and out came six men in cooks’ whites, carrying large insulated aluminum Mermite containers. They set the metal cans on the dry paddy dike and waited patiently.
“Sir, what’s going on?” asked my lieutenant over the radio.
“Stand by,” I responded.
Out of the DMZ emerged a Marine Force Recon Team of fifteen. They hadn’t bathed or shaved in a month. They were dirtier than dogs. The men walked into the paddy toward the dike and the Mermite containers. The men in cooks’ white greeted the Marines and prepared ice cream sundaes for each of them. I mean, whipped cream and nuts with maraschino cherries on top – the works. And these filthy Marines stood there and devoured the ice cream.
After they were done, the Marines handed back their spoons and metal cups and disappeared back across the DMZ. The cooks packed everything up, boarded the helicopter, and took off.
“Sir, what did we just see?” asked my lieutenant.
“I think it was an ice cream social,” I said.
A few minutes later, Sudden Death 66 called me from the C-46 in flight.
“Ken,” he said (by the way, this is the way Marines talked on the radio. They didn’t use call signs, just your name), “I bet you’re wondering what we’re doing.”
“Sir, we were curious,” I said.
”Those Recon guys have been in the DMZ for a month,” he explained, “and I figured they deserved an ice cream sundae.”
“Sir, that is an excellent idea. We’re glad we could see it.”
Davis continued, “But in order to make that happen, I had to have absolute security of that LZ. I was one of the guys in the cooks’ whites. The only way the Third Marine Amphibious Force would allow me to be that close to the DMZ, and in that much danger, was to have you guys there to provide absolute security. So, thank you.”
“Semper Fi.” That’s all I could say. “Semper Fi, sir.”
Everyone in A Troop agreed it was our best mission of the war.