The History Channel's new series, "Heroes Under Fire," makes its debut tonight with a gem, "Jungle Ambush," about a U.S. Special Forces mission into Laos during the Vietnam War that turned into a savage fight for survival.
Seen from the safe distance of time, what happened that day in October 1968 in the A Shau Valley probably had little military significance. "Jungle Ambush" makes no claims otherwise.
But what the episode does expertly is explore the bonds of loyalty and dependence that develop between men during combat. In this case, some of those bonds were between U.S. troops and Vietnamese allies.
The star of "Jungle Ambush" could be said to be one of the latter, Doan Khanh, known to the Americans as "Cowboy." He remembers the sense of foreboding when the unit was assigned to what was supposed to be a quick raid into territory used as a staging area for North Vietnamese army troops on their way to South Vietnam.
"When we got a mission for the A Shau Valley, we knew we were going to die, we knew we would lose people," Khanh says.
"Jungle" is taken from the book "Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam" by John Stryker Meyer, who was a Green Beret in Vietnam and now is community news editor for the North County Times in Oceanside. He was part of the unit that included Khanh.
Almost casually, Meyer tells of the intense fighting that raged for months as U.S. and South Vietnamese troops fought to prevent the North Vietnamese from using the region as a sanctuary. "Everybody was wounded at least once," he says.
Using interviews with survivors of the fight (including a North Vietnamese general) and a docudrama re-creation, "Jungle" explains how a nine-man patrol fell into an L-shaped ambush set by hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers.
Trapped in the claustrophobic jungle, U.S. forces stacked corpses of their enemy to provide cover. The North Vietnamese were tenacious and resourceful. As "Jungle" reminds viewers, the U.S. kept the fighting in Laos a secret from the public. That the History Channel should choose Veterans Day to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice on all sides seems fitting.
'Heroes Under Fire'
Where: The History Channel
When: 10 tonight
Ratings: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence)
History Channel executive producer Carl H. Lindahl