“Many GIs in Vietnam thought the night belonged to the enemy, but in the Mekong Delta, darkness belonged to Bert Waldron.” –Major John Plaster
Think back to the last time you felt truly frustrated and helpless. At some point in their lives, everybody finds themselves in circumstances utterly beyond their control. It’s a terrifying sensation.
Perhaps you were the subject of bullying. Maybe you were a little kid and got lost. For the Vietcong in the Mekong Delta in 1969, the engine behind their nightmares was SSG Bert Waldron.
SSG Waldron was a broken man imbued with a dark gift. Born in Syracuse, New York, in 1933, Waldron came of age amidst chaos and despair. The product of a dysfunctional home, young Bert despised his stepfather. This antipathy drove the kid into the nearby forest in search of peace and solitude. There Bert Waldron came to think of the wilderness as home.
Bert Waldron’s life could be a case study of the effects of nature versus nurture. By his 23rd birthday, the man had been married three times. His unique emotional milieu apparently made him all but impossible to live with. Waldron enlisted in the US Navy and served during the Korean War. He left the Navy in 1965 after twelve years to try his hand at civilian life.
With the country embroiled in an increasingly bitter land war in Southeast Asia and life out of uniform not to his liking, Waldron enlisted again, this time in the Army. He completed Basic Training at Fort Benning and five months later was in Vietnam.
Waldron’s prior service in the Navy earned him Staff Sergeant’s stripes, but he still had very little experience with practical soldiering. Once in country, SSG Waldron attended a brief eighteen-day sniper course taught by members of the Army Marksmanship Unit. I don’t know exactly what they taught during those two and one-half weeks, but it took. In short order, SSG Bert Waldron became a holy terror behind a sniper rifle.
SSG Waldron was assigned to the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, Regiment, 9th Infantry Division under LTG Julian Ewell. Operating in close conjunction with the Navy’s Mobile Riverine Force, SSG Waldron and his fellow snipers cruised the murky waterways of the Mekong looking for trouble. Waldron’s prior service as a sailor made him a perfect fit for this joint operation with the Brown Water Navy. More often than not Waldron staged onboard ATC’s or Armored Troop Carriers. These heavily armed and armored riverine vessels were called Tango Boats and offered US forces a prickly platform for operations throughout the myriad shallow waterways of the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong was heavily populated and teeming with VC. Charlie typically played to his own strengths, conducting many operations under cover of darkness when American air power and artillery support could not be readily brought to bear. Then Bert Waldrop and his snipers hit the battlefield with high-tech sniper rifles equipped with starlight scopes. The result was unfettered carnage.
It takes unimaginable courage to strike out alone into the jungle in the middle of a firefight, but that was exactly Bert Waldron’s forte. In January of 1969, Waldron and his unit came under intense night attack by a force of forty well-armed VC. When his unit found itself in danger of being overrun SSG Waldron pressed out into the jungle alone to hunt. Using his accurized M21 sniper rifle and AN-PVS-2 starlight scope he could spot the enemy maneuvering in the deep foliage and pick them off as opportunity allowed. During the course of the engagement, SSG Waldron savaged the attacking force and broke the back of the assault. This fight earned him a Bronze Star with “V” device.
Three nights later SSG Waldron discovered a large VC force moving tactically. He tracked the enemy unit using his night vision system until he gained an advantageous position to attack. SSG Waldron then sniped and maneuvered, engaging from various angles to convince the VC they were facing a larger, more organized force. Three hours later he had killed eleven of the Cong and forced them to leave the field. This night’s work earned him the Silver Star.
Eight days later SSG Waldron and his spotter were set up near Ben Tre scanning the darkness around their rice paddy with their starlight equipment. They encountered a seventeen-man VC patrol and took out their lead scout as he emerged from the treeline. Calls for artillery support were denied because of a nearby friendly village. At a range of more than 500 meters and under cover of darkness SSG Waldron killed eight VC with eight rounds from his sniper rifle. The surviving members of the VC combat patrol melted back into the jungle to safety.
Four days after that SSG Waldron was deployed in support of an ARVN unit in contact. He discovered a group of six VC attempting to outflank the ARVNs and gain a position of advantage. SSG Waldron then meticulously killed all six of the insurgents, picking them off one by one in the darkness with his sniper rifle and night vision gear.
In one nineteen-day period, SSG Bert Waldron conducted fourteen successful nocturnal sniper operations. For his dedication, valor, and ruthlessness he was awarded his first Distinguished Service Cross. By now the VC were beginning to appreciate that horrible feeling of helplessness. Where previously they could move and operate in the darkness with relative impunity, now SSG Waldron and his snipers brought death from unexpected quarters. Their efforts began to take a toll.
SSG Waldron’s effectiveness as a sniper clearly spawned from some innate skill. He had only had eighteen days’ worth of formal sniper training. During one engagement a VC sniper was peppering a passing Tango Boat from the top of a coconut tree some 900 meters distant. While the boat’s crew struggled to find the hidden sniper with their heavy crew-served weapons, SSG Waldron killed the man with a single round from his M21 rifle…while the boat was in motion. The Physics behind making a one-round kill from a moving boat against a camouflaged adversary nearly a kilometer distant strains credulity. However, the details were verified.
For these and similar actions SSG Waldron was awarded his second Distinguished Service Cross. Waldron’s reputation exploded among both Allied forces and the Cong, earning him the respectful nickname Daniel Boone. After eight months in country, the 9th ID rotated home and SSG Waldron with them. By the time he left Vietnam Bert Waldron had 109 confirmed kills, fully 12% of all the kills logged by all of the division’s snipers. Until Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle broke his record in 2006, SSG Bert Waldron was the deadliest American sniper in history.
The Army adopted the M14 rifle as a replacement for the WW2-era M1 Garand in 1959. A gas-operated, magazine-fed design, the M14 really reflected the previous generation’s technology. At 44 inches long the M14 was found to be unduly bulky for the bitter close-range jungle fighting that characterized the war in Vietnam. By the mid-1960’s the M14 was being replaced in SE Asia by the lighter, more maneuverable M16.
The US Army is indeed a majestically cumbersome beast. In 1955 the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit (USAMTU) embarked on a quest to incorporate snipers into the Infantry squad. In the malaise of the early 1960s, this initiative was discontinued. However, the exigencies of combat in Vietnam renewed interest in the art. That exposed the need for a dedicated precision sniper rifle.
While the Marines were using modified bolt-action hunting rifles, the Army contracted with Rock Island Armory to build up 1,435 National Match M14 rifles with Redfield 3-9x Adjustable Ranging Telescope (ART) sights. The ART was the brainchild of 2LT James Leatherwood and included both range finding and bullet drop compensation in its mechanism. This new rifle was formally designated the XM21 and first issued in 1969. An improved version with a fiberglass stock was classified the M21 in 1975 and served until 1988 when it was replaced by the bolt-action M24.
The AN/PVS-2 starlight scope was the first truly successful man-portable passive night vision weapon sight fielded by the US Army. This device amplified ambient starlight to produce a usable image in the absence of an active IR emitter. While such stuff is commonplace today, it was radical indeed in 1967 when it was first deployed to Vietnam. When combined with the early SIONICS suppressors fielded in 1969 the AN/PVS-2 offered American snipers a literally unprecedented capacity to own the night in Vietnam.
The Rest of the Story
Like so many true professional warriors, Bert Waldron found himself ill-suited to peacetime life at home. He served as a senior instructor for the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit (USAMTU) until his discharge in 1970. Along the way he met Mitch WerBell III through the commander of the USAMTU, COL Robert Bayard. and accepted a position as a counter-sniper advisor with Cobray International, WerBell’s weird creepy paramilitary training school in Georgia.
Mitch WerBell dabbled in overthrowing third world governments for a time and made quite a few enemies along the way. In 1975 COL Bayard was found murdered outside an Atlanta shopping mall. His killer was never apprehended. Throughout it all Bert Waldron’s name was a persistent fixture.
For the next two decades, Waldron worked in the shadows, plying the dark skills he mastered in Vietnam into a livelihood. Along the way his final marriage self-destructed and he was investigated by the FBI. In October of 1995, Bert Waldron died of a heart attack at age 62. His ex-wife Betty said this of him, “Bert was a wonderful soldier. He loved his country, he would have died for his country, but he had a lot of problems as a human being.”
Bert Waldron was a “Break Glass in Case of War” type of soldier. America desperately needs such men. It is simply figuring out what to do with them when the bullets aren’t flying that seems to be the perennial challenge.