“Give Us The Impossible Mission and We’ll Make It Happen”: The Original Tigers

Dr. James Wilson Sr.


Dr. James D. Wilson, Sr., MSG(R), was born in January 1947 in Portsmouth, Virginia, but grew up in Harlem. His mother worked for an electronics company soldering parts, and later she got a job working for the Veterans Administration. His stepfather worked for the New England Trading Corp in women’s clothes distribution and served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. His biological father had been a Montford Point Marine. (Executive Order 8802 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on June 25, 1941, opening all branches of military service to African Americans; the Marines built Montford Point, adjacent to Camp LeJeune, as a segregated training location for Black Marines.) His stepfather had a profound influence on Wilson’s life, telling him, “Anybody can be mediocre; do your absolute best.” As a child, Wilson appreciated the importance of education and had to read a book a week, reporting on it to his father. He studied the arts, acting, and piano. His father ran an “All Nations” baseball school for kids, and Wilson also practiced martial arts. High school was “an evolution,” and there, Wilson first “became aware of girls.” Harlem was a very diverse area and Wilson remembers growing up with white kids, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans. His schools were integrated, and he swam, ran track, and was on the diving team. He was also a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Junior Cadet (Army) in school. Many of his friends’ parents were World War II or Korean War Veterans. Wilson recalls the landmark events of the Civil Rights movement that occurred during his childhood, including the lynching of Emmet Till, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the 101st at Little Rock. One day, an African American paratrooper serving in the 555th visited Wilson’s father, and the vision of a black man wearing jump boots convinced young Wilson to pursue the goal of becoming a Para-Marine. Wilson knew the direction his life was headed. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. When he reported to Whitehall St. for induction, the Marine Gunnery Sergeant who reviewed his file asked him if he wanted to be a paratrooper. When Wilson said yes, the Gunnery Sergeant told him that the Marines were disbanding their large airborne unit, and if he wanted to be a paratrooper he should consider switching to the Army. He gave Wilson 10 minutes to make a decision. When Wilson decided to join the Army, the Gunnery Sergeant stamped his paperwork and sent him to the bus to Ft. Dix, New Jersey. In Basic Training, his Drill Sergeant was already a Vietnam Vet and he wanted to ensure that his Soldiers received intense training to prepare them for combat. After Basic and AIT, he reported to Ft. Benning for Airborne School and he “was in heaven!” He was the Honor Graduate of his class in Airborne School and relished the community of paratroopers. He reported to Ft. Campbell, his first duty station, and signed in to HHC, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, the same battalion that had served in Little Rock. He was overjoyed to be in that unit. As the new Soldier in the unit, he experienced the typical harassment that every “cherry jumper” faced, but felt that he learned what leadership was through the training he participated in. In the spring of 1965, when the 82nd deployed to the Dominican Republic, the 101st was alerted for an assignment to USARPAC, and on July 7, 1965, his brigade sailed for Vietnam on USS General LeRoy Eltinge (supposedly a secret deployment) with 4000 troopers crammed onto a ship designed for 2500. On July 29, 1965, the Brigade arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, welcomed by bands and people greeting the troops. Even though they were in shape, Wilson felt the heat was oppressive. The Screaming Eagles quickly departed Cam Ranh Bay, passing through Nha Trang and Qui Nhon before arriving in Anh Khe. He describes preparing for missions and conducting patrols. He recalls the fight against the Vietcong where LT John Howard earned the first CIB (Combat Infantryman’s Badge), and where the regiment suffered its first KIA (Killed in Action). During this period, the 1st Cavalry Division began arriving in Vietnam, and Wilson notes “they kept coming.” He discusses the formation of Tiger Force in the fall of 1965, highlighting their mission, special equipment, and organization. The Tigers prided themselves on moving through the jungle silently and efficiently at night to get into position to conduct special reconnaissance. On February 7th, 1966, the Tigers were involved in a battle near My Canh, southwest of Tuy Hoa, that they remembered as the “Battle of Tiger Field,” part of Operation Van Buren. During that fight, 1LT James A. Gardner was mortally wounded while destroying five enemy bunkers. For his actions, Gardner posthumously received the Medal of Honor; he died on his 23rd birthday. Throughout his tour, Wilson conducted an amphibious assault at Phan Rang, served along the Laotian and Cambodian border, suffered leeches in Cheo Reo, and observed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At Dak To, the Tigers engaged the 95th NVA Regiment in Operation Hawthorne and fought desperately for 18 days in June 1966. At one particularly intense moment in the fight, Wilson heard a voice yell, “Tigers, Abu is here (A/1-327),” followed by “Tigers Drop!” and the Abu Soldiers fired everything they had, rescuing the Tigers. By late June, Wilson was notified by Chaplain Curt Bowers that his brother had died in New York. Wilson was ordered to depart immediately from Vietnam. He was so well taken care of by his unit that when he landed at Idlewild airport (JFK Airport) a limousine was waiting to drive him to his house, and he arrived just in time for the funeral. After an extended period of leave, Wilson returned to the 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment at Ft. Bragg. In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his decision to join the Marines / Army, his training, and his wartime service. He describes the difference between fighting NVA and VC, and how the well-trained NVA “grabbed us by the belt buckle and engaged.” He recalls how the Tiger force was used, not only by their Battalion, but by the whole Brigade. Finally, he reflects on his service, his brothers always being there for him, and the 4 Cs of Leadership (Candor, Competence, Commitment, Character) that mean so much to him.


conflicts Vietnam War
topics Civil Rights Leadership Teamwork Camaraderie Military Techniques Returning from War PTSD African American Military Experience
interviewer David Siry
date 01 December 2023


name Dr. James Wilson Sr.
service Infantry / Special Forces
unit 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry, Tiger Force, 101st Airborne Division
service dates 1964 2007