This is a guest blog by Peter Alan Lloyd
An Eyewitness Account by SSG Arnold Krause
The night ambushes were designed to catch the enemy’s movement by surprise, knowing they had to avoid aerial detection during daylight hours. It was also our attempt to strike some fear into them, but the success ratio of night ambushes rarely matched the efforts to conduct them. The NVA knew full well that they could not battle us strength to strength without air and artillery support, so they chose to play cat and mouse and just wait us out, which is exactly what they did for more than a decade. Eventually public opinion and politics overtook any military strategies we used and without public support, our efforts eroded and we gave up.
North Vietnamese Fighters in action during the Tet Offensive
Clearly, the largest military campaign by North Vietnam was the TET offensive launched on January 30, 1968. Not until most of the U.S. ground forces had departed the county by mid 1971, did the North begin to expand their military effort against the South Vietnamese Army unencumbered by outside intervention. Only upon our official departure from RVN in 1973, under the banner of the Paris Peace Accords, when the last of U.S. troops were gone, did the North began to invade the South and ultimately defeat the South Vietnamese Army and overthrow the government on April 30th, 1975.
This was 4 years and 1 week after the 2/12th was withdrawn from Vietnam.
Most of the skirmishes between opposing forces during the war varied in size from individuals using sniper fire, to squad and platoon size battles against equally sized U.S. forces. Only on rare occasions, when the North felt that they had a tactical advantage which included a combination of manpower, firepower, and good escape routes, did they choose to engage us full on.
US soldiers patrolling through a rice paddy, as life goes on around them (212warriors.com)
Most of these pitched battles occurred at night and mostly against U.S. forces that were in some type of fire support bases or defensive positions using makeshift firing positions, shallow foxholes, two or three rows of concertina wire along with claymore mines for protection.
One could conclude with 99% certainty that the outcome of these battles always favored the U.S.
There were occasions when U.S. forces on patrol were ambushed (squad and platoon sized units) in which the enemy inflicted great damage, but when it came to company and larger forces in direct battle, the north was always defeated or withdrew from the engagement regardless of the situation. We always had the support of artillery and air power to help defend our positions, whereas the enemy was always fighting only with what they could carry (portable .51 Cal machine guns and 82MM mortars and 122mm rockets) except in the North (I Corp) where they had some artillery and at times attempted to use tanks.
Captured Viet Cong Soldier (Corbis)
However, the North Vietnamese soldiers fighting for their beliefs were a dedicated, tenacious, battle hardened, fearless group not afraid of dying for their cause, which was the reunification of the North and South Vietnams.
They firmly believed that our arrival to this country was to assume the power position of the French, who were cast out of the country in 1954 after being defeated by Ho Chi Minh at the battle of Diem Bien Phu. The North Vietnamese believed the U.S. was attempting to colonize the country or so the story is told, to justify the North’s invasion of the South. When the South announced its “independence”, the North was not EVER going to accept that as reality and embarked on a long war to repatriate the two countries.
The war became a game of the hunter and the hunted. The daily operations directed by our S2 intelligence operations sent us far and wide through all types of terrain. The southern end of Vietnam was vastly different geographically to the hilly and mountainous areas of I & II Corps. See attached photo of how Vietnam was divided up operationally.
Military regions of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War
Being stationed in III Corp for my tour, in the area to the north west of Saigon, stretching to the Cambodian border I experienced the hilly terrain of the Razorback Mountains north of Dau Tieng and the jungle that stretched along the base of the range. To the east and west of Dau Tieng were the vast Ben Cui and Michelin Rubber plantations, then later in my tour the Hobo and Boi Loi Woods and a healthy dose of rice paddies, hamlets, villages and hedgerows with occasional pockets of heavily wooded forests like the Straight Edge Woods south of Tay Ninh.
A Viet Cong soldier emerges from a spider hole (Corbis)
What did not change as we marched our way through all this land was the continual discovery of tunnels, spider holes, trenches, bunkers, above and below ground, both old and new – and booby-traps.
Viet Cong mines discovered at a base camp (Craig Schoonderwoerd, 212warriors.com)
The enemy was doing the same things we were doing to protect themselves. While we created defensive positions in the open areas of forests, jungles and rice paddies to create fields of fire, they chose to use the cover of vegetation, hedgerows and any other heavy cover they could conceal themselves from detection and generate the most damage to us if we managed to stumble into their fortifications. It created a formidable shield for us to penetrate, let alone the idea of whether it was worth the effort to root them out of their positions using brute force.
There seemed to be hardly a day that did not pass that someone tripped a booby trap or stepped into a punji pit.
A punji trap – sharpened bamboo stakes in a camouflaged hole. They could pierce a solder’s boot.
The VC would use any type of ordnance they could find to set up a trap. They were all nasty, deadly at times, and very effective in maiming our troops. On December 6, 1968 while on patrol out in the Hobo Woods, the 1st Platoon from my company triggered a booby-trapped artillery round that killed 5 G.I.s and wounded another dozen or so.
It was a devastating blast.
Viet Cong Bunker uncovered (212warriors.com)
MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) put great emphasis on the enemy’s infrastructure. You can clearly see this by reading the statistics after every engagement. The report would read how many bunkers or feet of trenches were discovered and how much was destroyed by artillery, gunship or aerial bombardment. Not that any of this mattered to us, because the enemy just rebuilt wherever and whenever he needed to.
Intelligence gathering by our SOG’s (Special Operations Groups), sometimes CIA operations run along and inside the borders of Cambodia and our own LRRP’s (long rang reconnaissance patrols), RECON (reconnaissance platoons), CRIP’s (Combined reconnaissance and intelligence platoons) both housed within the maneuvering battalions and aerial reconnaissance were all out looking for enemy activity, direction and purpose.
Captured from a Viet Cong base camp – flags, typewriter, sewing machine and weapons (212warriors.com)
Using this information, occasionally we would find a fresh base camp of bunkers, trenches and makeshift quarters. If we surprised the enemy, we might find fresh food stores of rice, weapons caches and occasionally medical supplies.
Camouflaged Viet Cong bunker entrance (212warriors.com)
If the enemy had a choice, once they were discovered, it was to leave the food but to take the weapons.
We found their fortifications in the densest areas of cover. They could effectively handle a platoon (25-40 men) to a company sized force (80-160 men). The VC and NVA were constantly on the move from one point to another, and they crisscrossed the land as much as we did.
NVA pass through a base camp in a forest
These base camps, both small and large could either be above ground, or, if below, connected via spider holes, and camouflaged trap doors which led down through a maze of tunnels connecting other bunkers or sometimes leading to hollowed out rooms used mostly for concealment.
Comparing the construction of fortifications in the field between the NVA/VC and US/ARVN forces was dramatic.
Headquarters, 4th Infantry Division (darrellpeck.com)
Not taking into consideration our large brigade and division base camps where materials and manpower seemed endless, out in the field, our options were smaller.
A U.S. Fire Support Base (‘FSB’) ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)
Take, for example, our FSB’s (fire support bases) that we created. Some of these were intended to be used for one operation or just a brief period of time, a month or less. The firing positions could be foxholes with polypropylene sandbags placed in front of the positions and no overhead cover. For the more permanent locations, where we stayed for months at a time, we dug our bunkers, then surrounded them with sandbags and for a roof, we used PSP (perforated steel plate) sheets which were about two feet wide and 8-10 feet long, normally used to create temporary runways for planes.
These sheets were then covered with two or three layers of sandbags to protect the bunker from mortar attacks. Some of the firing positions may have chain link fence strung out in front to guard the position from RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), a very dangerous and effective weapon used against personnel.
Logs and earth: Viet Cong bunker entrance, with US M-16 rifle in the foreground (212warriors.com)
The NVA/VC was “stuck” for the most part with creating their fortifications with the materials they had around them. They did not have the luxury of having a Chinook Ch-47 bring out sandbags, PSP and concertina wire for the troops. No, they had to rely on concealment mainly.
Their bunkers were dug in the dirt, under trees or bamboo stands and any protection they had was fashioned from sticks, tree limbs and bamboo for their roofs, with dirt piled on top. This would hardly stop a bullet, let along mortar or artillery fire.
Viet Cong cooking area (212warriors.com)
If I was the enemy, I would find little comfort in trying to hide behind these makeshifts bunkers fighting against heavy weapons fire. You have to keep in mind, that their fortifications were only temporary intended for a day, maybe a week or two, and then they were on the move. Whereas for us, our structures were built for months, and, in a few cases, for more than a year, such as FSB Pershing (October ’68 – February ‘70).
Arnold served his time with the 25th Division in III Corp area between March 1968 to March 1969, mostly operating northwest of Saigon and around Duc Hoc, Hoc Mon, Cu Chi, Trang Bang, Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, the Hobo Woods, Iron Triangle, War Zones C and D and all the area to Cambodia’s border from the Angel’s Wing to the Fish Hook.
Above Photo: Viet Cong Guerillas in South Vietnam
It’s October 1, 1968. I’ve been an NCO for about six weeks. The men (boys?) in my squad and I are adjusting to each other. We have moved from our location south of Hoc Mon into a new area just north of Trang Bang and west of Cu Chi where the 25th Div. base camp is located. The battalion is set up in two fire support bases, Stuart (one company) and Pershing (three companies). The companies rotate between the two FSB’s every couple of weeks.
Map shows part of the Iron Triangle (north of the Mushroom and the Saigon River), and a Viet Cong supply route in red. Our operational area is shown in yellow. (Arnold Krause)
The area is mostly rice fields, divided by large areas of brush and trees. The rice paddies are lined with hedgerows which serve as natural fences and property lines. Winter is over, but many of the fields still have water in them, which will have disappeared by the time we reach November.
Just to the north of our fire support base (FSB Pershing), lies the areas designated the Boi Loi Woods on the left, the Hobo Woods in the middle and to the east and directly north of Cu Chi is the Filhol Rubber Plantation. These three areas reach north and touch the Saigon River which is one of our boundary lines for our tactical area of operation.
Flight operations picked up and each company took turns with eagle flights (combat assaults) to our north and east searching for “Charlie” (VC). A major supply route drops down from Cambodia, runs east of the Michelin Plantation near Dau Tieng, through the Iron Triangle, a stronghold for the VC before we defoliated much of the vegetation. (See above map).
The trail then cut across the Saigon river continued south west of the Filhol Rubber plantation and Cu Chi and on into the Saigon area. It is heavily traveled and many local villages are sympathetic to the VC.
Pensive soldiers aboard a Huey
Our task is to interrupt this supply route and to engage from the 9th VC Division, the 101st and 272nd NVA Infantry Regiments that are located in this region, which we believed might number 4,000 – 5,000 troops.
It’s evening and everyone has had chow, and is settling down to what we usually do with our free time. Some are cleaning weapons while others are jaw boning in some friendly conversation.
I, along with the other NCO’s of third platoon, are notified that SFC John L. Partee and 1LT David Riggs want to go over tomorrow’s mission. I make my way over to their tent. Our mission tomorrow will be an eagle flight east to an area near X. Sa Nho, a village, which we have been having a lot of trouble with. Bravo Co. will be joining Charlie Co. and will work the area to our west. They are supporting our flank in a blocking and attack position. We are going to sweep the wooded area to the northwest of the village to see if our intelligence is correct with information that says there is a large force holed up there. 2nd and 3rd Platoons will be handling the combat assault and each platoon will provide 30 men including the Platoon leader, his radio man and our Forward Observer. 1st Platoon is assigned road security along Alpha 6.
Eagle Flight (James Tamash, 212warriors.com)
The 187th AHC (Assault Helicopter Company) is assigned to provide transportation in 2 lifts of 12 ships each. At 0745 we move out into the pickup zone which is outside the perimeter on the east side of the FSB and get into groups of 6 men and ready ourselves for the chopper’s arrival.
On time, the Crusaders from the 187th arrive and we scamper onboard at 0800 for the 10 minute ride to our LZ. Arriving at the LZ, two gunships are circling the area providing cover. We fly into the LZ and set down in an open and large rice paddy area and hop off of the slicks. There is no enemy activity and for the moment, all is quiet.
Eagle flights in the Iron triangle (Bill Benson 212warriors.com)
On the ground we fan out to create a perimeter of defense while we wait for the rest of the unit to arrive. Once all the “lifts” (more than one eagle flight, depending on how many choppers have been allocated to move the battalion’s troops for the day’s operations) have been completed, the lead platoon, in this case, it’s my platoon, sends out its flankers and we get into two files since the area is fairly open.
My squad has point and so I double check my topographical map and using a compass set the azimuth according to the first check point for the mission. Once we are in formation I wait for SFC Partee to signal for us to move out. Bravo Co. is just off to the left several hundred meters away but traveling in the same direction. The operation is hoping to create a blocking movement by one company and force the enemy to retreat or try to escape by moving into the other company where we can catch them in a cross fire. I receive word to get moving, and tell PFC Ed Wales, my point man what direction I want him to take as we start out.
On patrol in the Iron Triangle (James Tamash, 212warriors.com)
As the day progresses we reach CP (check point) Alpha, then Bravo, and all is quiet. After a brief break where we stop to rest our feet, grab a drink of water and smoke a cigarette, then we head out to our third CP located inside a clearing in a wooded area.
By now we are outside of the village of X. Sa Nho. The advance is cautionary and slow as we approach the wood line. For some, the pulse rate climbs in anticipation and the beads of sweat slowing inch their way down the sides of the cheek bones. The moisture in the mouth gives way to a feeling like you have been chewing on a cotton ball and you try to swallow but can’t. This is the most dangerous time when the enemy could unleash their automatic weapons and pin everyone down in the open. I whisper to Eddie to slow it down and really scan the area as we creep closer. This time nothing happens until we penetrate the brush and enter the woods.
Moving through vegetation in the Iron Triangle (Craig Schoonderwoerd, 212warriors.com)
Suddenly there is ‘movement’ in front of us and five men dressed in black pajamas are seen sprinting away toward Bravo Co. Wales flips off the safety on his weapon but can’t get a shot off because he is packing a M-79 Grenade Launcher and there wasn’t enough clearance to fire.
My line of fire is also blocked because I am behind Wales at the time. I yell to the men behind me that we have movement to our front and to fan out and find some cover. LT David Riggs moves to direct the men behind him on where to advance.
Bravo Co. under the command of CPT Allan Wissenger sees and engages more of the enemy with automatic weapons fire over on our left flank, then 1LT R.W. McDaniel, Charlie Co’s C.O. directs 2nd platoon to swing around to our (3rd Platoon’s) right and join the firefight.
Viet Cong Bunker (Tom Burch)
There is more than just the VC we saw sprint away from us. The enemy is dug in and is located in the middle of the heavy wooded area we just entered. It is difficult seeing and targeting the enemy. CPT Wissinger calls for aerial support from Cu Chi.
I’m trying to keep an eye on the new guys in my squad, George Toto from Pennsylvania and Jesse Tostado from San Bernadino, Ca. Neither has seen any combat yet and I want to make sure they are in the right position to support the rest of the fire team.
I tell both of them to pick up on any muzzle flashes or smoke and keep their return fire just above ground level to hit the enemy. I tell them to keep their heads down unless they are firing their weapons, otherwise they’ll take a bullet.
Wales is firing his M79 into the trees just above the enemy positions.
The terrain is too dense for our two platoons to try and maneuver around and through the trees without taking on unnecessary risk and casualties, so 1LT McDaniel has us hold our positions and keep up the fire, hoping that when the LFT’s (light fire teams or gunships) arrive from Cu Chi they can try and get the enemy to move in Bravo Co’s direction or break and run from cover so they can hit them from above.
A Combat Assault (Dave Rittman vhpaphoto.org)
Two Huey gunships arrive on station with the call sign Diamondhead 26. CPT Wissinger’s RTO radios the LFT that we will pop smoke to mark our forward positions and that they are to hit 50 meters to the north of the markers. Wissinger has a better view and can direct the aerial support. LT Riggs tells us to pop smoke to our front.
The gunships calls out the color of the smoke as “purple” and we confirm. The gunships then hit the enemy positions with rockets and mini-gun fire. Just to top off their day, the other gunship hits them with CS gas which takes some of the fight out of them.
Cobra gunship armed with rockets and machine guns ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)
The fight lasts about an hour before the firing stops. The enemy is defeated, having no place to run to. 14 VC are killed and another 11 are taken prisoner. There are no U.S. losses in the battle.
Captured Viet Cong soldier (Ken Blakely, 212warriors.com)
Battalion S-3 officer MJR Joe Rigby orders the two companies to look around the area and search the battlefield for weapons and anything we can find. As we scan over the area we see fresh bamboo bunkers along with some trench works skirting the edge of the hedgerows. Santiago, a Spec 4 from Texas and some of the guys are poking around and soon discover some concealed spider holes in addition to the other earthworks.
Viet Cong bunker ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)
Viet Cong bunker discovered at New Year ( Vaughn Banting, 212warriors.com)
One of Bravo’s ‘tunnel rats’ volunteers to check out one of these spider holes. It’s hard to believe how small some of these tunnel entrances are. For most of them, only a small man with a very slender build can squeeze into them.
A Tunnel Rat in Vietnam
Personally, I did not find it too appealing to go down into one of these armed with a flashlight, knife and a .45 Cal pistol. But, to each his own and Bravo Co. had a young kid who enjoyed the challenge and he started down into one of the openings.
What was sometimes waiting for them – a Viet Cong soldier in a tunnel.
A few minutes later he hollers’ out that it’s all clear. He discovers what appears to be a small underground hospital or aid station and a host of medical supplies in addition to an ammo cache which was partially concealed above ground. A lot of the items found come from the Red Cross and some of it was wrapped in U.S. newspapers, one from the Chicago area.
A Viet Cong base camp (212Warriors.com)
We’re standing around looking at the items that are being brought up from below ground and can’t figure out how this stuff arrived at its destination. Was it given to them through an international outlet and it made its way down from Hanoi? We never figured it out.
Examining Viet Cong supplies stored in ammo boxes (212warriors.com)
After all usable contraband is removed from this underground world, the 65th Engineers do their best to destroy what they can of the complex using shape charges. The ammo cache contained 87x82mm rds, 29 cases of RPG-2 rds, 30 cases of AK-47 rds, 73 Bangalore torpedoes, 15 cases of 60mm rds, 7 pistols (various), 1x60mm mortar tube, 5lbs of documents, 66,000 piasters, and 1 complete surgical kit.
Captured Viet Cong weapons cache, Cu Chi (Donald Patrick, Myspace)
The eleven detained suspects are part of the 7th Cu Chi Battalion Rear Detachment and are airlifted back to Cu Chi to be questioned, along with the first aid supplies that was uncovered.
Blowing a Viet Cong ammo cache (Richard Wiggins, 212warriors.com)
It’s getting late in the day and we have a pickup scheduled at 1530 Hrs to take us back to FSB Pershing. If we miss the hookup, we could be walking back to FSB Pershing. The extraction goes as planned and without incident. This was a good day for us and the unit. No one was killed and there were just some minor injuries that did not require a dust off. Nine days later, we would encounter a larger force in the same area which would result in a large firefight.
Approximate location of the Iron Triangle Area in red circle.
Thank you for your service SSG Arnold Krause!!! Welcome Home Brother!!!
Peter Alan Lloyd maintains a website to promote his two published novels and a wide variety of articles related to the Vietnam War, backpacking through Laos and other interesting facts about South East Asia. Please visit his website for more information of his offerings: http://peteralanlloyd.com/category/the-vietnam-war/eyewitness-accounts/page/2/
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