As retired Staff Sgt. Bruce Nesmith ran his fingers across the names of the 34 fallen Soldiers engraved on the installation’s new Vietnam Lancers Memorial, he paused for a moment to reflect on what it was like serving with each of them.
The Lancers of B Company, 158th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) were among the most decorated pilots of the Vietnam War, and their legacy continues on through B Company, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
Soldiers from throughout the Lancers’ history gathered Nov. 4 for the Vietnam Lancers Memorial’s dedication ceremony, followed by a luncheon and static displays at Campbell Army Airfield’s Hangar 12.
“The significance of this particular monument is that we’re going to be the only company in the 101st to have a monument with the names of all our fallen, from the conflicts in Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the ceremony’s officer in charge, 1st Lt. Joshua Elliott, 5-101st Avn. Regt. “It’s hard to put into words. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, but it goes so far beyond that and I’m honored to have the opportunity to honor these men.”
Attendees stood solemnly as retired Staff Sergeant Dan Bush, who served with the Lancers in Vietnam, read the names of each fallen Soldier accompanied by a bell toll.
Gold Star Family member Rosemarie Sgambati Parillo then joined him to help place a memorial wreath.
“It was very moving, and I was really afraid I was going to cry,” said Parillo, whose younger brother, Spc. 4 Paul Sgambati, is named on the monument. “I enjoyed talking to and meeting a lot of the men who served with Paul. It was a special time, and I enjoyed listening to their stories.”
A storied history
There are countless stories to tell from the Lancers’ history, which began with the 158th Assault Helicopter Battalion’s formation on July 25, 1968 at Fort Carson, Colorado. The unit was soon attached to the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile).
“B Company was a typical lift company,” Nesmith said. “It fielded 20 UH1H Huey helicopters with all of the personnel and equipment required to maintain and repair everything from airframe to weapons. With its organic maintenance detachment, motor pool, armory, mess hall and other activities it had approximately 275 personnel.”
Nesmith said 80 of those Soldiers made up the company’s flight crews, and they underwent four months of training before deploying to the Republic of South Vietnam in January and February 1969.
“After we arrived in-country and got our aircraft, the Lancers underwent a month of training and orientation by flying with experienced pilots from the 101st,” he said. “We became operational on April 1, 1969 and flew our first major combat assault into Fire Support Base Ripcord.”
The Lancers were active in Vietnam for 2 ½ years, flying 65 aircraft for a 320% replacement rate and a combined 51,833 combat hours. They participated in missions ranging from the Battle of Hamburger Hill to Operation Lam Son 719.
“We prepared for Lam Son for about a week, and first we had to take Khe Sanh, which had been abandoned,” said retired Lt. Col. Mike Jacobi. “That was probably the most masterful operation I’ve ever seen or participated in. We had all these aircraft lined up in an extremely long formation, and everybody had a separate landing zone.”
Jacobi said the offensive required taking all the key terrain around Lam Son simultaneously, as well as reopening National Route 9 – a major roadway extending to the Vietnam-Laos border. The Lancers were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for their efforts in Operation Lam Son 719, and they received several other unit awards throughout the Vietnam War.
“It was my privilege and honor to have the opportunity to associate with the men of Bravo Company, 158th Aviation Battalion,” said retired Lt. Barry Beard. “We were a disparate group from different backgrounds, and we were not perfect ... but as far as I knew, we shared one common characteristic. Every one of us would risk it all to help or save others without regard for any of the differentiators we hear today.”
Today’s Lancers are represented in B Company, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), although it took decades for anyone to fully make the connection.
“After the unit returned to Fort Campbell [from Vietnam], it took part in several covert operations in South America and Central Africa,” Nesmith said. “In 1980, the company was moved into the top-secret Task Force 158 for the planned second Iran hostage rescue attempt, [and] after the hostages were released in 1982 the Army kept Task Force 158 intact as a special operations aviation unit.”
Task Force 158 eventually became Task Force 160, which developed into the 160th Special Operations Regiment (Airborne).
“B Company was detached from the 101st in 1986, and so were their awards and official military lineage, while the personnel of B Company were mostly absorbed by the newly formed 160th SOAR,” Nesmith said. “The 158th was later redesignated as the 5-101st Avn. Regt. on Sept. 16, 1987.”
Nesmith said much of the Lancers’ early history was lost during the unit’s transition to the 160th SOAR. Internet access allowed the Vietnam-era Lancers to connect with their successors in the 101st CAB in 2000, but no definitive link between them was discovered until 2021.
“During the Week of the Eagles, a large group of Vietnam Lancers spent time with [today’s] Lancers at Hangar 12,” Nesmith said. “While touring the company area, one of our own, retired Lt. Col. Jacobi, discovered the missing link. Today’s Lancers and the original Lancers from 1968 have the same Unit Identification Code: WFJ4BO.”
A memorial service conducted during the Week of the Eagles that same year inspired Nesmith to lead fundraising efforts for the Vietnam Lancers Memorial.
Vaughn Monument Company of Cookeville, Tennessee built the memorial, which includes the names, ranks and dates of death for each of the 34 Lancers killed in action during the Vietnam War.
“The heroic actions of these individuals paved the way for the survival and successes of this unified brotherhood,” said Capt. Jon Waight, commander, B Company, 5-101st Avn. Regt. “There is no amount of gratitude or sorrow we can express for their actions, and we remain indebted for eternity to them and their Families’ sacrifices.”
Waight said the unit exemplifies the core tenets of aviation excellence, and he is confident they will continue to write history and succeed in any mission.
“There’s no question the current Lancers are proud to continue and build upon the legacy of selfless service, commitment to excellence and an unwavering support for the Soldiers on the ground,” said Col. Clinton Cody, commander, 101st CAB. “Rest assured, the Lancers are ready when they once again receive our nation’s call – whenever and wherever that may be.”