By Selwyn Harris
Every Veterans Day the memories flood Leroy Tyon’s mind with a vengeance. This past one was no different.
Three big events changed his life.
The first occurred for the Army Specialist Four on Oct. 25, 1968.
Tyon was a machine gunner in the 1st Platoon, Company A in the 1st Battalion of the 61st Infantry.
During the early morning hours, as the company was moving over a flooded rice paddy, a battalion-sized unit of the North Vietnamese initiated a “savage mortar and small arms attack upon the company.
“The ensuing attack lasted for over ten hours, and during this time the platoons were said to become widely dispersed because of the intense mortar, rocket propelled grenades, and automatic weapons fire.”
Tyon’s heroism that day was credited with potentially saving the entire company.
He won a Bronze Star, the U.S. Army’s fourth highest award, bestowed upon soldiers for acts of merit, bravery, and valor.
The soldier’s heroism would be recalled again about a year later.
His company was conducting military operations just east of the international boundary between Laos and South Vietnam, which was west of the dismantled Khe Sanh fire base.
According to a letter from his commanding officer, a fierce firefight and the enemy broke through the line of defense and engaged an American armored personnel carrier with flame and satchel charges, which left all members of the crew with severe injuries from burns, concussions, and shrapnel wounds.
“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his personal safety, he Tyon braved intense hostile fire to engage the enemy at point-blank range to reach his fallen comrades. After killing two enemies with his .45 caliber pistol, he pulled his wounded friends from the burning wreckage, carried them to protective cover, and began the initial First-Aid treatment.
“Throughout the night, he continued to move with the medics through intense fire, and along the areas of fiercest contact to extract the wounded. Specialist Tyon’s personal bravery and valorous actions while risking his life for his comrades saved many lives and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army,” a citation reads.
By no means does Tyon’s story of uncommon valor end there.
June 30, 1969 was another day he will never forget. On that day just after 3 a.m., Tyon became a prisoner of war.
He was among a group of eight soldiers on a reconnaissance mission near the 17th parallel, out scouting the movements and gathering information on North Vietnamese troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The soldiers were transported aboard a C-130 cargo plane and parachuted in under the cover of darkness to their destination not far from the trail, which enemy forces used to move weapons and provisions back and forth from the north to the south.
As the troops were being dropped into the area, Tyon said his chute caught a huge gust of wind, which sent him into what he called a “cigarette roll,” where he was completely out of control.
“My strap was getting all tangled up and I noticed that I was no longer in a vertical descent, I was moving horizontally, and that is what they call a ‘Raquel Welch,’ if you know what I mean. It was just pulling me. I was being dragged in mid-air horizontally because of the winds. I was spinning and I didn’t get a chance to use my other chute,” he said.
Tyon noted that because of anti aircraft weapons on the ground, the C-130 had to fly at an altitude of about 22,000 feet, keeping well out of range of the enemy’s missiles.
His descent pulled him roughly three miles into the lion’s den of North Vietnam.
“I then hit the ground and got the wind knocked out of me. Then everything went black. I don’t think I hit the ground; I must have hit some trees. When I came to, I felt someone sewing my head up,” he recalled.
It was at that moment when Tyon realized that he was captured.
Fortunately for him, it was not by the North Vietnamese.
He was captured by villagers who were non-combatants and essentially saved his life; for the most part.
Tyon said he felt a sense of relief when he realized that the villagers did not carry weapons.
He did note that they had other plans for him because they thought that he was an American pilot who was shot down.
“Once they had me, I was for sale and there was a bounty on my head. When someone falls out of the sky, they assume they are a pilot. Pilots have big bounties on them because they can be traded. These are poor villagers. They have very little money if any at all. They were North Vietnamese sympathizers but they were also money hungry,” he said.
What surprised Tyon was the fact that his captors were treating him very well.
“They were fattening me up like a calf and treating me good. They stitched my head up, but I was still sore from the fall. They were feeding me what they ate, like rice and fish, so I was eating their food, drinking their wine and they even fanned me because it was so hot. So I was doing fine,” he said.
Tyon said a North Vietnamese patrol eventually wandered in and began talking to the villagers.
He said gestures between the two parties suggested that his captors wanted money from the patrol in exchange for him.
When a deal was not struck, Tyon said, he felt a sense of relief, if only for a short while.
“I guess they didn’t have enough money, but the next patrol that came by had the cash because they were a bigger patrol and they spoke English pretty good. They had cash, watches, and rings. They filled his hand up so he agreed to sell me,” he said.
Tyon noted that a code among the villagers and the troops was the reason why he was not just taken by force from the villagers.
He said after the exchange, an attractive female soldier was tasked with the job of watching him.
He said that his hands were secured with barbed wire, which resembled a crude pair of handcuffs.
He was also secured to her by the straps of his parachute.
“She wrapped that around her waist and tied it to the barbed wire,” he said.
Tyon, who weighed more than 160 pounds at the time, said his new captor appeared to be about 75 pounds soaking wet.
That’s when he began to brainstorm.
He had about six feet of strap between himself and the woman, which was enough length to allow for a little bit of privacy when nature called.
Both prisoner and captor eventually followed a river where Tyon said he believed their destination was an encampment where other American POWs were being held.
That was when Tyon said he planned to make his escape.
“When she turned her gun away from me, I jerked and jumped into the river and she hit the water, too. She got up close to me, but I beat her off. Luckily, when she was still connected to me, my barbs came loose because she didn’t have them that tight and I still have deep scars on my hands. She went this way and I went that way.”
Tyon says he drifted with the river’s current near the shore where he encountered poisonous snakes and other reptiles.
Fortunately, the river’s direction was flowing south towards what he called “friendlies.”
“I had to come across the demilitarized zone to be in South Vietnam. When the water gets stagnant, but still running, there’s a lot of debris, so I could hide during the day behind that debris,” he said.
When he got thirsty, Tyon said he had no other choice but to drink the river water, which he said, was teeming with parasites and insects.
His hunger was somewhat satisfied by ingesting another type of parasite — leeches.
He noted that he would pull them off his body and eat them.
He described the taste as a combination of mud and blood.
“I had them all over me. I pulled them off, but their heads were still there. I figured that they were drinking my blood. It just takes up the empty part of me and they don’t taste too darn good. It would have been better if I had a little Tabasco. I put enough in me to take away that emptiness,” he said with a light chuckle.
The time in the water gave Tyon even more problems.
He suffered from a condition called “jungle rot,” and other maladies.
“I had intestinal parasites. I had a viral infection in my bladder, kidneys, and liver. I was all infected from that dirty water. I also developed malaria. I escaped the adversary, but I did not escape the elements,” he said.
Though his captors only had him for about five days, Tyon’s ordeal lasted more than a month.
“When you add five days to 28, you come up with 33. That’s what the army counted. Thirty-three days of missing in action, AWOL or something,” he said.
Tyon finally caught a lucky break while making his way down river.
He said the 3rd Marine Division was performing a swift boat operation when he thought of a novel way to try and get their attention.
“When I was floating along there, I saw them and the only way I could get their attention and for them to know that I wasn’t an enemy I shouted ‘Hey you mother******s.’ That’s the way I identified myself and they know a Vietnamese is not going to say something like that. They looked around and pointed a big quad 50 mm at me,” he said.
After being pulled from the river, Tyon said the first thing he asked for was clean water and food.
“I said do you have anything to eat? They gave me a big can of beans and I began feeling a little better and everything was fine. I remember there were two white guys and two black guys. They were alright,” he said.
Tyon said he believes his willingness to go to battle at a moment’s notice may have something to do with the fact that he is a descendent of a Native American warrior and folk hero.
“I’m a 10th generation warrior of the Sioux Nation and it’s my life to fight. I am a great-grandnephew of Crazy Horse. My great-grandfather ‘Wind Ghost’ is first cousins with Crazy Horse. War is in my DNA,” he said.
Tyon served four tours of duty in Vietnam from 1967 until he was honorably discharged on August 1, 1973.
It also bears mentioning that Tyon, a local resident, and other veterans were recognized and honored during a welcome home Veterans Day ceremony at the Pahrump Nugget recently.