Today we remember two of our missing in action brethren from the Vietnam war On this day, January 15, 1971, two Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group, SGT James Arthur Harwood, and 1LT James F. Kinsman became missing in action in southwestern Vietnam along the Cambodian border.
Harwood was born March 10, 1950, in Omaha, Nebraska. He entered the service in October 1968 in Dallas Texas. Kinsman was born on June 12, 1945, in Boston, MA. He entered the service and received his commission on July 11, 1969, at Ft. Benning, GA.
5th SFG’s Detachment B-43 was located at the Chi Lang Special Forces camp. It was located in Chau Doc Province, along the very heavily contested border area between Vietnam and Cambodia. The number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars (NVA) in the area made even training exercises outside of the camp, live combat patrols. It was considered a very “hot” area.
Detachment B-43 was commanded by Major Leary with CPT Harry Purdy as the company commander. Their mission was to train and advise the Khmer Reconnaissance Platoon, 2nd Company, 1st (later the 6th) Cambodian Mobile Operations Battalion. Other members of the Detachment B-43 included 1st Lt. James F. Kinsman, Lt. James J. McCarty, then Sgt. James A. Harwood and Sgt. Stamper.
Conditions were not ideal at Chi Lang, the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) strikers, that had been formerly under the U.S. control, had been turned over to the ARVN (South Vietnamese) in the Vietnamization process and their training and reliability had deteriorated as such that by then, now called ARVN Rangers, they were considered less trustworthy than their half-trained Cambodian Khmer troops. The SF also had a worsening relationship with the Vietnamese camp commander, Major Hoa, who in a fit of jealousy over the Special Forces’ training of the Cambodians, refused to stop or discipline his troops for stealing from the Americans. This would lead to the tragedy that befell the Americans.
The Americans, led by 1LT Kinsman, who was the tactics instructor for the Cambodes, LT McCarty and SGT Harwood were leading the Khmer company’s 24-man reconnaissance platoon in a training exercise around Nui Ta Bec Mountain, which was known on the map as Hill 282.
Nui Ta Bec Mountain is nestled in a cluster of peaks only two miles from the Cambodian border, 5 miles northwest of the Chi Lang SF camp.
The green Khmer troops completed their training exercise and were awaiting fresh troops from the 8th Khmer Inf. Bn. to relieve them in the field. The recon troops were moving thru a heavy bamboo thicket on the west side of the mountain, they were searching a large outcropping of boulders looking for the Viet Cong when they came under machinegun fire by the VC.
Harwood, who was with the point element, immediately dropped to the ground and radioed McCarty that he “was crawling toward the point man and that he couldn’t see anything and was receiving heavy fire from the front.” That was the last anyone heard from him. With radio contact lost, McCarty shouted to Harwood but received no response.
McCarty’s radioman was wounded in the leg at the very outset of the battle. He frantically radioed Sgt. Stamper, who was located with a platoon at the base of the mountain, informing him of the situation. MAJ. Leary, the detachment commander, was monitoring the exercise from a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. He could see the firefight commence and was monitoring the radio traffic between the troops on the ground.
Leary immediately relayed the reconnaissance platoon’s urgent request for assistance to Major Hoa and Border Rangers at Chi Lang. Hoa claimed that all of his units were “busy” and any help was not forthcoming from him. Leary immediately radioed for help from a battalion that was part of the 9th ARVN Division. They responded but due to the distance involved, by the time the ARVN troops arrived, the battle was over and the Viet Cong had safely scampered back to their sanctuaries in Cambodia.
McCarty moved forward as quickly as possible toward Kinsman’s position. He caught glimpses of Kinsman directing the Khmer troops into better firing positions. When he reached Kinsman’s position, McCarty found him flat on his back in the small clearing. Kinsman had sustained a serious wound, he was shot in the stomach just to the side of the navel with an exit wound in the back. And, McCarty noted, Kinsman was lying in a large pool of blood.
As McCarty began giving first aid to the grievously wounded Kinsman, enemy fire ripped his weapon apart, tearing it from his hands and destroying it, scattering the pieces everywhere. Just seconds more enemy fire wounded McCarty. With enemy rounds kicking up all around him, McCarty tried to drag the unconscious Kinsman to safety.
However, soon Viet Cong troops moved forward and as they approached the wounded Americans’ position, McCarty, wounded and weaponless was forced to leave the unconscious Kinsman where he was and went to hide in a nearby thicket to escape detection.
The surviving members of the reconnaissance patrol regrouped, and then called in medivac aircraft to remove their wounded and dead. When taking a head-count it was determined that both Kinsman and Harwood were missing.
McCarty reported that during the entire firefight he never saw Harwood and that when he had last seen, Kinsman, he was unconscious with Viet Cong troops approaching his location. The ARVN troops from the 9th Division initiated a ground search and rescue (SAR) operation in and around Hill 282 for the two missing American Green Berets. At the same time, American aircraft were called in to conduct an aerial visual search of the area.
No trace of Harwood or Kinsman was found by either the ground or the aerial search elements. Nor were freshly dug graves in and around the ambush site, or along the Viet Cong’s withdrawal path back into Cambodia.
As soon as the search operation was terminated, James Harwood was listed Missing in Action. At the same time, Gerald Kinsman was classified Killed/Body Not Recovered because of the severe wound he was known to have sustained.
According to MACVSOG records:
In August 1974, a Vietnamese refugee reported the following information to the US government, which he received second-hand from another Vietnamese: “The enemy (Viet Cong) ambushed a Government of Vietnam team, killed one American and captured one American – one officer and one NCO – in that vicinity. The live American was ordered to pull the body of the dead American into the forest. There the American was ordered to dig a hole and bury his friend. As soon as he finished his work, a VC cadre stood beside him and fired at his head with a K .54 pistol. The two bodies were rushed into the hole, and it was filled with earth.” The source also assumed that the gravesite might have been in a valley, but could not provide details of its location. There is no way to determine the validity of this second hand, hearsay report, and the fate of the two Americans remains unknown. Likewise, US intelligence had no way to determine if this report actually correlated to the loss of 1st Lt. Kinsman and Sgt. Harwood, or to any other American casualties.
The CIA also sent cable traffic related to the same incident and relayed that they had intelligence that said that the Viet Cong had executed two American prisoners. However, it was never able to be confirmed as well.
Less than a month later, the 5th SFG (A) would case their colors and leave Vietnam. The long, drawn-out war would be over for the unit that had been there from the earliest days and had more than earned their reputation thru blood and sacrifice. It was time for “The Legion” to go home, although Special Forces troops remained in Vietnam in different capacities until the very end.