Beatles-Era Bass Player from Liverpool – Killed In the Vietnam War.

Beatles-Era Bass Player from Liverpool – Killed In the Vietnam War.

Above Photo: John Shell (right) onstage with the Hideaways in the old Beatles haunt, the Cavern Club, in Mathew Street, Liverpool.

I recently read about a bass player from a Liverpool band who was killed in action during the Vietnam War.

John in Vietnam in 1968.

John in Vietnam in 1968. (Suzanne Bibby)

John Shell was a twenty-year old Liverpudlian, who played bass in a band called the Hideaways, who regularly played at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, where the Beatles first had their break.

John had dual US and British citizenship, and, even though he’d lived in Liverpool since he was a child, he felt the call to arms and went to fight in Vietnam at the age of twenty, serving with the 1st Infantry Division,  north-east of Saigon, where he was killed within three months of the start of his tour of duty.

Phu Loi's location marked in red, north-east of Saigon.

Phu Loi’s location marked in red, north-east of Saigon (Click, then double click to fully enlarge – you can see the notorious Cu Chi district above the red “E” to the left of the map)

This area was close to the ‘Iron Triangle.’ During the Vietnam War, the Iron Triangle was an extremely dangerous place, where Viet Cong supply routes from Cambodia funneled into South Vietnam then headed down to Saigon, through jungles, rice fields and on waterways such as the Saigon River.

The Viet Cong were well dug-in, and well-supported in this area, even at the best of times, but unfortunately for John, these were the worst of times.

Queuing for the Cavern Club, LIverpool, in the 1960s.

Queuing for the Cavern Club, Mathew Street, Liverpool, in the 1960s.

In addition to this area being routinely dangerous, two more events made it even more dangerous for John the night he died.

The Cavern must have felt a million miles away from where John died in Vietnam – Phu Loi air base, seen from a chopper. (David Staniszewski)

Firstly, John was killed on the night of 1-2 February 1968, right at the start of the Tet Offensive, which had commenced on 30th January.

The Tet (Chinese New Year) Offensive involved surprise mass attacks by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) fighters launched against US bases, installations and also cities in South Vietnam, involving hundreds of thousands of committed fighters, determined to fight to the death.

NVA troops attack an outpost

NVA troops armed with AK-47s, B-40 grenade launchers and machine guns attack an outpost.

Secondly, he was unlucky that he was sent to Phu Loi that night, because large numbers of NVA regulars and VC soldiers had used the countryside and jungle around Phu Loi as a staging area for the Tet attacks, so they were heavily concentrated around the base.

This undoubtedly made the guards on duty that night around the perimeter especially nervous and trigger-happy, which was also why John was unlucky, because he was killed in a friendly fire incident outside Phu Loi.

I contacted one of John’s fellow soldiers, Israel Barrera, who was with John the night he died. This was his account of what happened:

It was 45 years ago, and yet it all seems like it happened yesterday or last night.

Perimeter and area around John's camp, Quan Loi (quanloi.org)

Perimeter and area around John’s camp, Quan Loi (quanloi.org)

John and I were in Charlie Co. Our base camp was Quan Loi, but we were flown by choppers to reinforce another base camp at Lai Khe, because it was suspected that it was going to be hit by a human wave attack by the Viet Cong.

Soldiers at Quan Loi camp (quanloi.org)

Soldiers at Quan Loi camp (quanloi.org)

Hueys at Quan Loi (quanloi.org)

Hueys at Quan Loi (quanloi.org)

Day quickly became night as we waited and waited for the ground attack at Lai Khe. Later that night, we were told at the perimeter of Lai Khe to pack up our gear and to head to the air strip to be picked up. Everything had changed that night.

Lai Khe base from the air

Lai Khe base from the air. This was the runway where the helicopters were being attacked by the Viet Cong as John was trying to get aboard.

When we were on the runway at Lai Khe, mortar and rocket fire started coming in while the choppers were landing. Everybody started running, trying to get into the choppers. John and I missed the chopper we were supposed to get on.

NVA soldier with a B-40 rocket launcher

NVA soldier with a B-40 rocket launcher

Finally we made it to one. We were already in the air and we could see tracer bullets from Viet Cong rifles trying to hit our chopper. 

Phu Loi base camp from a helicopter (www.lighthorseaircav.com )

Phu Loi base camp from a helicopter (www.lighthorseaircav.com )

We landed at Phu Loi base camp that night. It was already 1 February, the beginning of the Tet Offensive. We all headed to the perimeter line of the camp, where the bunkers and foxholes were.

Then it all happened so fast.

A Perimeter bunker at Phu Loi (farm4.static.flickr.com)

A Perimeter bunker at Phu Loi (farm4.static.flickr.com)

As we were positioning ourselves in the foxholes, we started receiving fire, and it was coming from one of the bunkers in the perimeter.

Some guys from the base camp were there already pulling guard, and, apparently, they didn’t know we were coming. We were yelling to them to stop firing.

They finally stopped, but it was too late. John got hit. He was a couple of fox holes from me. I too almost got hit.

Later, we were told John didn’t make it while he was being flown to a hospital.

He‘d paid the ultimate sacrifice.

John in Vietnam, in a Fort Polk T shirt, which is where he did his training in the US. (Suzanne Bibby)

In a foxhole outside the perimeter of Phu Loi camp that night, thousands of miles away from Liverpool, John must have felt even further away from the safety, comfort and happiness of playing bass in the Cavern Club with his band.

John Shell in white jacket and pink shirt with his band The Hideaways

John Shell in white jacket and pink shirt with his band The Hideaways (Suzanne Bibby)

John's name on the Veterans' Wall in Washington D. C. (Gary Baker)

John Shell’s name on the Veterans’ Wall in Washington D. C. (Gary Baker)

See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:

© Peter Alan Lloyd

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3 Comments

  1. Jim

    God speed John!!!
    I arrived Phu Loi April that same year as a civilian contractor. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you. Perhaps we’ll met when I get to the other side.
    James C. (Jim) Jones

    Reply
  2. John Donaldson

    Just found this site (November 2014). Still remember John . My bandmate from school.RIP .John Donaldson.

    Reply
  3. Peter Samson

    Also just come across this report in Nov 15th. Knew John from our first 2 years at the Lucas Apprentice Engineering School in Fazakerley in 1963-65. Heard he had been killed in action, but until now, did not know the fact it was friendly fire. Also heard two conflicting reports that: He was forcibly conscripted into the American army because he held dual nationality and secondly (as in this article), he volunteered his services, which seemed so unlike him because he was such a gentle natured guy when I knew him.
    RIP John.
    Peter Samson

    Reply

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