Vietnam Veteran Series
by Michel Robertson
Article first appeared in The Transylvania Times on Dec. 4, 2017
Mike DiRocco’s clandestine entry into Vietnam began on a moonless night in the Viet Cong-controlled Van Canh valley, 200 miles north of Saigon. The 12-member Special Forces team’s mission: organize, equip, train and lead a mercenary army of South Vietnam’s indigenous tribesmen, the Montagnards.
Born in 1938 of Italian immigrants, Michael “Mike” DiRocco is highly-trained in military engineering, explosives, and communications. He joined the Marines in 1954, serving as a tank commander and an Italian interpreter for NATO. In 1960, he joined the Army specifically for Special Forces. He served three tours of duty in Vietnam, 1962-1963; 1964 when he was badly wounded and returned to the U.S. to recover; and 1969 when he returned to Vietnam. He retired from the Army as a Sergeant First Class in 1973.
Living with the Montagnards
During DiRocco’s first two tours in Vietnam, Special Forces operated under a CIA umbrella, on loan from the Army. The indigenous Montagnards, recruited into service by the American Special Forces, defended their hamlets against the Viet Cong and served as rapid response forces. “They wanted nothing to do with South Vietnam and their loyalty was to the Special Forces A-Team,” says DiRocco. “We delivered their babies, taught them how to fight, and led them in engagements against the Viet Cong – everything.”
Embedded in the central highlands villages, Special Forces 12-member A-Teams operated in remote areas and hostile environments with little external direction and support. At the peak of the war there were more than 200 teams and an army of more than 50,000 mercenaries who, like their trainers, were excellent warriors and used to a hostile environment.
As the Viet Cong forces became aware of American activity in these tribal hamlets, DiRocco’s team increased training and security patrols of the camp. After requesting a 105 howitzer, or “105,” to aid in this effort, their captain was told that all the howitzers had been given to the South Vietnamese and the unit would have to purchase one.
Furious at the prospect of buying back their own equipment, the team came up with a plan to steal a 105. They recruited a friend employed by Air America to help them with their caper. The pilot, a crew chief and two Green Berets climbed into an H-34 helicopter and flew up the coast to the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) base camp which was carelessly guarded.
“While the chopper hovered, our guys threw netting around the howitzer and handed boxes of shells and fuses to the crew chief,” says DiRocco. “Two ARVN soldiers stepped out of their tent. When they realized what was happening, they ran towards the chopper, waving their arms and cursing as the 105 cleared the sandbag emplacement.” As they flew north, DiRocco adds, the American soldiers threw a mock salute at the ARVN artillerymen.
DiRocco is a self-described adventurer. While in Special Forces, he completed German mountain climbing school in Mittenwald and mountain and glacier climbing school in Aosta, Italy. He also led a military expedition of divers to ancient Roman galleons, recovering artifacts for the Italian Bureau of Antiquities, Livorno, Italy. Mike DiRocco and his wife, Maggie, live in Brevard, NC. He is currently on the Board of Directors of Brevard’s new WNC Military History Museum.