It made no difference that 23-year-old 2nd Lt. Stephen Leopold was a Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University who served as a member of the U.S. Army’s elite Special Forces in Vietnam. Three weeks after arriving in country he was captured by the North Vietnam Army near Ben Het, in the jungles of Two Corps, May 9, 1968.
“When the NVA carried me off that was the last anyone heard of me for four years, 10 months and 23 days,” the 66-year-old retired Green Beret colonel said. “I was serving in an A-Team with a couple of companies of Montagnards, the indigenous people of Vietnam, when I was caught.
“We were out there supposedly showing the Montagnards how to fight the North Vietnamese. We were to provide a road block so the NVA couldn’t bring tanks and mechanized equipment through the Western Highlands of South Vietnam,” he said.
Ben Het, their base camp, was where South Vietnam intersects Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
“A couple of companies of Montagnards, 300 or 400 soldiers, were supposed to patrol a 20 square mile triple canopy jungle crawling with divisions of NVA,” Leopold said. “After the first two or three weeks in the camp I ended up on the wrong hill, at the wrong time in the wrong place.”
His unit A-243 was over run by NVA one morning.
“It was a typical A-Team camp. You had a group of American advisors, a bunch of ill-equipped Montagnard troops, and some South Vietnamese soldiers they hated all living together on a hill,” he said.
Because he was a Green Beret, Special Forces and the junior officer in the A-Team, his primary job was take the Montagnards out on patrols looking for the enemy. Leopold was also nation building with the indigenous troops. It was his job to show them how to establish a local government, schools, improve their agriculture and generally live better.
With him in the bush was Staff Sgt. Michael McCain.
“He loved the Highlands and he loved the Montagnards. This was his third tour in Vietnam,” Leopold recalled. “We did an air assault on Hill 875 in the morning, but it turned out not to be a hot hill.
“Next morning a company-size unit of NVA attacked our hooch atop Hill 875. McCain was killed by grenades thrown in the hooch and I was blown out of it by the concussion from the same grenades,” he recalled. “When I came to there was a kid with an AK-47 standing over me wearing a conical hat yelling: ‘SURRENDER OR DIE!'”
He didn’t resist.
“I was very lucky because we were right near the NVA staging area. If I had been 20 or 30 miles inland they would have shot me,”he said. “One of the reasons we were over run by the NVA was that the Montagnards were equipped with old American World War II .30 caliber carbines. They had no up-to-date weapons because the South Vietnamese were terrified of them.
“When the Montagnards were attacked by trained NVA troops with modern AK-47 assault rifles they melted into the jungle. The South Vietnamese advisors, who were with them, went right along, too,” he said.
For the next 10 days Leopold was moved to an NVA jungle camp in Northern Cambodia.
“We were deep enough in Cambodia – I never heard B-52 (bomber) raids. We moved into the mountains of Cambodia and stayed there in a jungle camp for 18 months,” he said. “I was living in a big bamboo cage that had a floor in it. There was a guard no more than 25 feet away at all times. When it became dark I was locked in heavy wooden stocks. I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Life in the NVA camp was boring right down to the propaganda indoctrination sessions they tried to feed him that he didn’t like. His situation improved when Peter Trabic, a 17-year-old soldier captured five days after arriving in Vietnam, was captured. They put him in solitary in one of the huts in the camp.
Then Mike Benze, the deputy province chief for USAID, was brought in. He had been captured during the Tet Offensive. He was put in solitary in another of the huts in the compound.
“Sometime around Thanksgiving of 1968 they took the three of us out of the compound and marched us around the hill blindfolded. We ended up in a similar camp with five big huts,” Leopold said. “There were eight other enlisted guys in this camp that had been captured by the NVA in various places in the Highlands,. “I was given a two month course by the camp commander on: “‘The True Nature of the U.S. Imperialist War in Vietnam.’ I had to write my answers in a college blue book for the camp commander who spoke and wrote English,” he said.
“He told me: ‘I was an odious member of the Nixon clique.’ He also said, ‘I was a war monger,’ Leopold recalled four decades later with a grin. “In the 1990s this same little Communist bastard rose to the number three person in the North Vietnamese defense hierarchy. ”
By this time Leopold had been in captivity 18 months he and almost all of the Americans in the NVA’s camp in the Cambodian bush were marched north toward Hanoi and an uncertain future.
“It was November and for 48 days they fed us well and walked us up to Laos,” he said. “They trucked us the rest of the way at night to a prison camp 20 clicks southwest of Hanoi.
“Camp 101 was a hell hole. We got there on Christmas day. They threw me in solitary in a black washed room. It was one of the few days I was in captivity I sat down and cried,” he recalled. “That’s where I was going to sit like a mushroom for the rest of the war I thought.”
2nd Lt. Stephan Leopold’s MIA experiences in North Vietnam would continue for almost another three years. Things for him would get a lot worse before they got better.
The second part of Leopold’s POW story will appear on Wednesday.
Name: Stephen Ryder Leopold
D.O.B: 19 June 1944
Hometown: Johnson City, SD
Current: Milwaukee, WI
Entered Service: 30 June 1966
Discharged: 15 July 1973
Unit: 5th Special Forces Group
Commendations: Silver Star, Bronze Star, 2 Purple Hearts, Vietnam Campaign Medal, POW Medal
Children: Cassandra and Christopher
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, May 2, 2011 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Leopold’s collection in the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.
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