Sp.-3 Jim Miele was demolition expert, ’tunnel rat’ & served with Rangers in Vietnam

When he flew into Tan Son Nhut Airbase near Saigon, South Vietnam in 1968 Sp.-3 Jim Miele was 19 and thought he was invincible. He began his 14 months in country as a demolition expert, then volunteered to be a “tunnel rat,” and finally parachuted out of airplanes with Army Rangers on special operation missions.

Miele was attached to the 1st Infantry Division based in Chu Lai, South Vietnam to begin with. He served in Charley Company, 1st. Engineering Battalion, 1st Division.

“Our job was to sweep roads for enemy mines and cut landing zones for the infantry. We’d fly in first and cut the L.Z. We also blew enemy bunkers,” said the 68-year-old Ventura Lakes mobile home park resident who lives south of Punta Gorda.

The battle at “Fire Base Riley,” along the Cambodian Border, was Miele’s toughest fight in Vietnam.

“We got overrun by NVA (North Vietnamese Army regulars) and Vietcong guerrillas about 4 one morning,” he said. “Wave after wave, after wave attacked our artillery base.

“It began when our crew-chief scout, a VC who was working for us, told his interpreter: ‘I can smell the opium used by the enemy.’

“We had a moat filled with water around the outside of the firebase. In the moat were 55-gallon drums filled with fu-gas. Fu-gas is gasoline and detergent mixed. When we exploded the barrels the stuff went up like napalm,” Miele explained.

“They attacked us with Ak-47 assault rifles, 9 millimeter pistols and satchel charges. One of them would lay on the barbed-wire around our parameter and the others would step on him to cross the wire.”

By the time the NVA and VC attackers negotiated the moat, the fu-gas and the barbed wire they were inside the compound. By then U.S. artillery was firing at the attackers point blank.

“Our artillery went down to zero range. It was firing at the enemy with barrels level. Beehive rounds, little darts, is what stopped them,” Miele said. “By 9 a.m. the next morning the battle was over.

“Some 60 to 80 dead NVA and VC soldiers lay inside and outside the compound. After the fighting they brought in the engineers with a bulldozer. They dug one huge grave with the dozer and pushed all the dead enemy in the trench,” he said.

“We lost 10 dead and another 20 wounded in the fighting.”

This was not the only fight Miele took part in while in Vietnam. He almost lost a buddy in another engagement with the enemy.

“Frank had one of his legs blown off and the other one was mangled when he was hit by shrapnel from an RPG,” he said. “I was also hit in both arms by small pieces of shrapnel from the same rocket propelled grenade. It was minor.

“We put Frank on a helicopter and I never saw him again.

“My platoon sergeant wanted to put me in for a Purple Heart. I thought about Frank with both his legs gone and another guy in our outfit who had a bullet wound in his chest and told him, ‘Forget it.’”

On a normal day Miele and some of the others in his unit would get up at 5 a.m. and go out on “Thunder Road,” the main north-south road in South Vietnam, searching for enemy mines. We could clear 10 miles of the road in four or five hours.

“Three of us would be a minesweeping team,” he said. “There was the guy in front with the detector and I was the one in the middle because I was the demolition man. There was another guy behind me we called the probe.”

“One day out on the road we found three mines hooked together. The mines were made of C-4 explosives attached to a battery that would detonate them. They were wrapped in plastic so our detector couldn’t pick them up.”

Their front man spotted the mines buried in the main road before anyone stepped on them or ran over them with a truck.

“One time we found an old French anti-tank mine in the road. I blew it and the hole it left in the road was big enough to put half this house in,” Miele said.

“At one point during my tour in Vietnam I worked as a ‘tunnel rat’ in “The Iron Triangle.”

The “Triangle” was a Vietcong hot spot. It was formed by the convergence of two rivers—the Saigon and the Thi Tinh.

The first time Miele went down in a tunnel with only a .45 pistol in hand he found the enemy.

“I fired my .45 at him, but I don’t think I hit him. He disappeared. When I climbed out of the tunnel my ears were still ringing. I couldn’t hear a thing.

“I went down another tunnel and found an NVA hospital. This tunnel was three elevations deep. On the first elevation there was nothing. We found a trap door that led to a second and third elevation.

“When we got down to the second layer we heard moaning. We found a wounded NVA soldier. He was shot in the shoulder and his wound was infected. We pulled him out of the tunnel and got his some medical help.

“He told us to shoot him because when the South Vietnamese soldiers got him they were going to shoot him anyway.

“The third level was used for cooking. There we found three more wounded NVA soldiers. We got them to the surface and they received medical attention.

How did Miele become a “tunnel rat?” He volunteered.

“I was 19-years-old and I didn’t think anything was going to happen to me,” he said almost 50 years later. “Furthermore, I was going to get paid an extra $10 a month for crawling through those tunnels.”

Pvt. Jim Miele of Ventura Lakes mobile home park in Punta Gorda is pictured at 19 when he got out of boot camp at Fort Jackson, S.C. in 1968. Photo provided

“On another occasion we were working with the 2nd of the 28th Infantry. Our job was to blow up an abandoned enemy base camp. We got off the helicopters in the middle of a field and we got hit with green tracers. Our tracer bullets were red, the enemy’s were green.

“A squad of NVA was still in the base camp and they had a machine-gun. It was still our job to blow the camp. Since I was the demolition expert I was elected to throw the satchel charge.

“I went in with the infantry squad to take care of the camp. I took the five-pound satchel charge, pulled the cord that armed it and threw it into the bunker. It killed all the NVA in there.”

He had been in Vietnam about a year when his platoon was attached to the I-Company, 75th Rangers.

“We were sent to jump school outside Saigon for two weeks. We made five practice jumps.

“Our first jump from a C-119 ‘Boxcar’ was made at 1,200 feet. The second two jumps were at 600 and 500 feet. Our last jump was at night.

“Combat jumps were made at 500 feet. The idea was to get on the ground in a hurry.”

Miele never made a combat jump with the Rangers. However, he did go on several patrols with them.

“On one of the patrols we found an enemy bunker and blew it up. On another we discovered six cases of saki and during the third patrol we came upon six sandbags filled with paper money. G-2 (Intelligence) came in and took care of that.”

After 14 months in ’Nam he flew home to the U.S.A. and was discharged at Fort Dix, N.J.

“I never saw any Vietnam protesters on the way home. Maybe it was because I came back to the States on Christmas night 1970,” he said.

He went to work for the city on Long Island, N.Y. at first. Much of the time he worked for the city he drove a street sweeper.

Then Miele decided to go back in the Army. He re-upped and became a supply sergeant.

“I was very good at it,” he said.

He spent the next nine years in the service and got out the second time in 1990.

The family moved to Florida that year. For the next 13 years Miele worked for the Englewood Water District as the innovatory and purchasing manager.

“Then I had both knees replaced and went on disability. I also get disability from the Army for post traumatic stress syndrome.

Together he and his second wife have seven children. He has two daughters from a first marriage: Melissa and Sharon. She has five from her first marriage: Julie, Joe, Scott, Steve and Stevie.

Name:  James Miele
D.O.B:  3 Dec 1948
Hometown: Queens, NY
Currently: Punta Gorda, FL
Entered Service: 20 May 1968
Discharged: 19 May 1974
Commendations:  National Defense Service medal, Vietnam Service medal, Vietnam Campaign medal, 2 Overseas Bars, Army Commendation medal, Sharp shooter M-14

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 and is republished with permission.

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