Operation Wheeler started Sept. 11, 1967, near Chu Lai. Continuing under task Force Oregon - which was redesignated the Americal Division - the Screaming Eagles encountered elements of the 2nd NVA Division west of Tam Ky.
Surprise airmobile assaults into the Song Tranh Valley flushed out the enemy. Paratroopers killed scores of the fleeing NVA. After three weeks enemy dead had risen to 396, and by early November to more than 800, making Wheeler the largest single operation conducted by the brigade in Vietnam.
Pfc. William Austin was leading his squad of Co. A, 2nd Bn., 502nd Abn. Inf., across a rice paddy near Chu Lai when a water buffalo charged from some bushes. Everybody beat a retreat except Austin, who stood rooted to the spot. He sidestepped and thrust his M-16 into the animals face. The buffalo knocked the weapon from his hands and wheeled for another pass.
"Before he could charge me again, I made a leap for my rifle lying in the mucky rice paddy," said Austin. He pointed it at the charging animal and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Austin chambered another round and again pulled the trigger. It worked, the bull buffalo collapsed and fell, its head pinning Austin to the ground. "Dont just stand there," Austin shouted to his astonished buddies. "So something!"
"Ole! Ole!" came the response.
In their 75 days of Operation Wheeler, the 1st Brigade troopers killed 1,105 enemy. Late in November the brigade was on the move again, this time back to II Corps after an eight-month absence in I Corps, during which they accounted for 2,405 enemy killed. The "Always First" troopers went back home - to Phan Rang.
During the fall the "Nomads" learned that they would no longer be alone in Vietnam. The divisions 2nd and 3rd Brigades and support elements would be coming over in late fall.
In two and a half years the 1st Brigade paratroopers made 31 tactical deployments, traveling more than 2,500 miles to conduct 25 major operations in three of the four tactical zones. The troopers accounted for 6,000 enemy killed, captured enough weapons to equip eight enemy battalions and took 2,000 tons of rice from "Charlie." Medical treatment was provided for more than 25,000 Vietnamese, and more than 15,000 refugees were relocated. Four thousand miles of road were cleared of enemy control.
The Air Force C-141 Starlifter touched down at Bien Hoa Air Base and coasted to a halt. The rear ramp was lowered and nearly 200 eyes stared intently into the humidity. "I dont know why Im craning my neck," said one paratrooper. "I've got a year to look at it." The 92 Screaming Eagles deplaned with the heavy weather closing in around them and boarded the buses. A soldier wearing a "boonie hat" boarded last and stood up in front. "Men," he said with a big grin as he stared at the sober faces, "welcome to Vietnam."
"Thanks a lot," somebody said.
Division headquarters was set up at Bien Hoa. The 2nd Brigade established an area of operation (AO) around Cu Chi and the 3rd Brigade around Phuoc Vinh. Ahead was a 30-day in-country training program. Approximately 80 "Ready to Go" Brigade troopers went through daily instruction on booby traps, reconnaissance, and explosives given by men of the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi.
On January 31, 1968, enemy rockets and mortars heralded the start of the enemy's largest single offensive of the war. Within one day, battles were raging all over the country, from the DMZ to the Delta.
One massive attack was aimed at over-running Bien Hoa, location of the division headquarters. The 2nd Bn., 506th Abn. Inf. was brought in by helicopter from Phuoc Vinh and was in heavy contact less than a half hour after arriving. More than 100 enemy fell in the seven-hour battle, which started at the main gate of the installation, within sight of headquarters. Another 58 were killed the next day, February 1.
One of the most dramatic battles was fought by the "First Strike" troopers of the 3rd Platoon, Co. C, 1st Bn., 502nd Abn. Inf., when they responded to an urgent request to reinforce the U.S. embassy. The 35-man reaction force was led by Maj. Hillel Schwartz, assistant division intelligence officer. The team combat-assaulted onto the roof of the embassy, searched every room and cubicle, and established a perimeter in the courtyard, where fighting was still going on. The Screaming Eagles were credited with nine of the 19 VC killed on the embassy grounds.
Farther north, the 2nd Brigade troopers fought with the 1st Cav and 1st ARVN Division to wrest control of Quang Tri from the enemy. In the first 15 days of Operation Jeb Stuart, the Airborne soldiers killed 830 enemy, and in the two-day pitched battle during Tet, the sky troopers and paratroopers killed 320 enemy.
Hue, the former Imerial City, had also been captured by the enemy, who held it for 21 days. The 2nd Brigade troopers also participated in the battle to reclaim it, and one man, Sgt. Joe R. Hooper of the "Delta Raiders," 2nd Bn., 501st Abn. Inf., was awarded the Medal of Honor for his action.