How the ‘Golden Brigade’ Marked the 50th Anniversary of Its Vietnam Deployment

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The Golden Brigade named its first base in Vietnam after Staff Sgt. Joe Rodriguez, the first 3rd Brigade soldier lost in combat. (U.S. Army)

At the end of January 1968, North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong guerrillas launched the Tet Offensive, hitting more than 100 towns and cities across the south. The attack took American and South Vietnamese troops and leadership by surprise.

Although much of the offensive was repelled and most of the communists’ gains were recaptured quickly, the effect it had on U.S. war planners was much more far-reaching. The overall commander of American forces in Vietnam, William C. Westmoreland, asked for more troops.

He wanted paratroopers. Specifically, he asked for paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne.

On Feb. 12, 1968, the United States tapped the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division to answer the call. The men of the 82nd were getting ready for a night out on the town -- but the Army stopped them in their tracks.

"There was no question in anybody's mind that was exactly where we were going," Bob Murill, then a second lieutenant, told the Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina. "But we didn't get the actual orders until we were on the plane and outside the continental U.S."

Instead of dressing for an evening in the bars and clubs of Fayetteville, they switched gears, dressing instead for a combat deployment to the jungles and firebases of South Vietnam. America was playing its trump card.

The 3rd Brigade was often called on for its ability to deploy rapidly, anywhere in the world, at home or abroad. In 1965, the brigade deployed to the invasion of the Dominican Republic. In 1967, it conducted an airborne exercise in Puerto Rico and a little more than two months later was sent to Detroit to restore order after a riot engulfed the city.

Everything the 3rd Brigade touched turned to gold; hence the nickname, “The Golden Brigade.”

Just days before the launch of the Tet Offensive, the 3rd Brigade was preparing to mount an assault to retake the USS Pueblo, a Navy ship that was captured by North Korea in international waters. That mission never happened. By Valentine’s Day 1968, they were on their way to Vietnam.

"We're the 82nd Airborne," Patrick "Paddy" Barry, a combat engineer with 3rd Brigade, told the Fayetteville Observer. "We're not going to play tiddlywinks. We're going over there to arrange a meeting between the enemy and his maker."

The unit was seen off by none other than President Lyndon B. Johnson himself. After a brief speech and best wishes, the paratroopers responded with, “All the way, sir!”

Johnson gave his own reply: “Airborne.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson greets deploying members of the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division in 1968. (U.S. Army)

The Golden Brigade spent 22 months fighting in Vietnam, losing 227 men in near-constant operations in the country. It started with helping retake the last communist holdouts left over from the Tet Offensive. The men of the 82nd performed constant patrols, mine-clearing and hunter-killer missions.

In 2018, the men of the Golden Brigade planned a celebration that would do justice to the men who left Vietnam with just two weeks' notice or less, and spent more than a year there in support of their country and fellow soldiers.

On top of a series of events at Fort Bragg during All America Week, the veterans of the Golden Brigade planned a large reunion in West Point, N.Y., that June. Hundreds of 3rd Brigade veterans were in attendance.

The story of the Golden Brigade in Vietnam was recounted in detail by author Robert J. Dvorchak in his 2020 book, “The Golden Brigade: The Untold Story of the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam and Beyond.”

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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