Cherries - A Vietnam War Novel

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The Vietnam war story

More Military Engagements of the Vietnam War

This article is the result of reader comments following my past article, “12 Major Battles of ,the Vietnam War.” https://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2017/01/03/12-major-battles-of-the-vietnam-war/

There were many comments split between my Vietnam Facebook groups and following the  posted article that challenged the word “Major” insisting that anytime participants were fired upon and placed in harms’ way, then in their minds,  it wasn’t just a skirmish, ambush or sniper – to them, it was a major experience.  Personally, I never knew the names of any of the Operations or battles that I had participated in.  All I know is when the shooting started, it was a battle; doesn’t matter if it lasted five minutes or sporadically for a month.

I’ve listed those battles mentioned from your comments along with notes and pictures about each one.  Beware: this article is extremely long (31,000 words and 136 pages) – the equivalent of a short novel.  I’ve added as much detail as possible to see the “big picture” and hope it meets with your approval.  I also hope that readers find this article educational and learn more about the Vietnam War from the information provided.  Kudos to anyone able to read the entire article in one setting!

Note that these engagements are neither listed chronologically nor are they in order of importance.  They are only suggestions deemed important to mention from my readers.  They are also posted in the order that I recorded them from your notes:

Operation Prairie I-IV
Battle of Con Tien
Battle of Dong Ha
Operation Allen Brook
Operation Hump
Battle of An Loc
Operation Lam Son 719
Battle of Quang Tri Province
Battle of Ben Het Special Forces Camp
Battle of Binh Ghia
The Hill Fights
Battle of Trang Bang
Battle of Tam Quang
Operation Cedar Falls
Operation Dewey Canyon
The Cambodian Campaign
Attack on FSB Jay
Attack on FSB Illingworth
Battle of Ap Gu

Operation Prairie I

This was a U.S. military operation in northern South Vietnam that sought to eliminate North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).Over the course of late 1965 and early 1966 the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) intensified its military threat along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tactical goal of these incursions across the 17th Parallel sought to draw United States Military forces away from populated cities and towns, a similar strategy would be employed during the final months of 1967 in order to maximize the impact of the upcoming Tet Offensive. In response, the Marines elected to construct and reinforce a string of firebases due south of the DMZ including installments at Con Thien, Gio Linh, Camp Carroll, and Dong Ha. To support the defense of the DMZ area, Marines were often relocated from the southern regions of I Corps. In addition to these firebases, U.S. forces also established an interconnected sequence of electronic sensors and other detection devices called the McNamara Line.

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Map of the demilitarized zone and northern Quang Tri Province during the Vietnam War

The original actions in defense of the Vietnamese DMZ, officially designated as Operation Hastings, began on 15 July 1966. Operation Hastings was a strategic success for American and South Vietnamese troops as the estimated enemy casualties reached upwards of 800 enemy soldiers. The operation, however, was only scheduled to last slightly longer than three weeks reaching its conclusion on 3 August 1966.

Due to the initial, albeit brief, successes of Operation Hastings the United States elected to essentially renew the mission and rename it, Operation Prairie. Operation Prairie would cover the exact same areas along the DMZ that Operation Hastings had, as well as had the same mission. The formal objective of Prairie was to search the areas south of DMZ for NVA troops and eliminate them.  Another purpose of Operation Prairie aimed to determine the extent of NVA and VC infiltration of northern I Corps, the area of South Vietnam stretching from the northern edge of the Central Highlands to the DMZ.

 A UH-1E Huey helicopter preparing for take off at Dong Ha Airbase.

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Over the course of the next few hours Major Vincil W. Hazelbaker landed his UH-1E helicopter under withering enemy fire to resupply the Marines. Hazelbaker then departed, reloaded his helicopter at Dong Ha Airfield, and bravely returned. After several unsuccessful landing attempts Hazelbaker finally safely landed on the ground, resupplied the troops a second time, however during the unloading of ammunition an enemy rocket impacted the rotor mast, crippling the aircraft. Hazelbaker then assumed command, as Captain Lee had been injured by a fragmentation grenade, and directed a napalm strike on the enemy position at dawn on 9 August 1966. Reinforcements finally arrived later that morning, secured the area, and aided in the evacuation of the remaining Marines in the afternoon. In total Team Groucho Marx and their reinforcements suffered thirty-two casualties, with five men killed, while they inflicted at least thirty-seven enemy KIAs (a support team later noted other bloodstains and drag marks indicating a much larger higher number of casualties). For the valiant actions occurring during the two-day fight, Captain Howard V. Lee earned the Medal of Honor and Major Vincil W. Hazelbaker was presented the Navy Cross. 

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On 15 September 1966, an additional 1,500 Marines landed from 7th Fleet ships off Quang Tri province to support two companies of the 4th Marine Regiment who were pinned down by a large force of NVA troops. The outnumbered American forces were unable to break out until 18 September 1966.  Operation Prairie concluded on 31 January 1967 with a total of 1,397 known enemy casualties.

Operation Prairie II

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The allied forces renewed the operation several times during the first half of 1967 beginning with Operation Prairie II, which spanned from 1 February to 18 March and accounted for a total of 693 enemy casualties.

Operation Prairie III

 3rd Marine Division in late March 1967 crossing a stream west of Cam Lo
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Operation Prairie III began just two days after the conclusion of Prairie II on 20 March and lasted until 19 April 1967 with an enemy casualties estimated at 250 soldiers.

Operation Prairie IV

Operation Prairie IV ran from 20 April to 17 May 1967 and featured heavy fighting east of Khe Sanh along the southern banks of the Ben Hai River, including five battalions of the 1st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and three battalions of Marines and the Special Landing Force.  By the time Prairie IV wrapped up actions, a total of 164 American troops had been killed with approximately 999 wounded, while the NVA suffered 505 deaths with an unknown number of wounded.

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Operation Prairie was undoubtedly a huge success for the American and South Vietnamese forces, however, its primary triumphs were overshadowed in the months and years that followed. The allied forces accomplished exactly what had been outlined in Prairie’s objectives: prevent enemy infiltration across the DMZ and Ben Hai River and determine the extent of their infiltration. Nevertheless, the NVA units merely fled over the DMZ to North Vietnam in order to regroup, re-equip, and then reenter South Vietnam later in 1967.   One of the other purposes of Operation Prairie was to reduce the large investment of manpower that the U.S. forces had committed to protect the DMZ. Instead, the NVA strategy tied down a major portion of the Marine force in I Corps along the vast, barren tracts of land south of the DMZ, leaving population centers undermanned and under protected.

Battle of Con Tien

This battle occurred during Operation Prairie I and is included in the information above.  Therefore, I’ve added a 25 minute documentary to tell this story.

Battle at Dong Ha

In the spring of 1968, after the Tet Offensive and before the opening of the Paris peace talks, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong made a determined effort to improve their bargaining position. They conducted 119 attacks on provincial and district capitals, military installations, and major cities in South Vietnam. The United States Marines maintained a supply base at Dong Ha in I Corps.

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It was in the northeastern area of Quang Tri Province. Late in April and early in May, the NVA 320th Division, with 8,000 troops, attacked Dong Ha and fought a rigorous battle against an allied force of 5,000 marines and South Vietnamese soldiers. The North Vietnamese failed to destroy the supply base and had to retreat back across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), leaving behind 856 dead. Sixty-eight Americans died in the fighting.

Operation Allen Brook

This was a US Marine Corps operation that took place south of Danang, lasting from 4 May to 24 August 1968.
Go Noi Island was located approximately 25 km south of Danang to the west of Highway 1, together with the area directly north of the island, nicknamed Dodge City by the Marines due to frequent ambushes and firefights there, it was a Vietcong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) stronghold and base area.  While the island was relatively flat, the small hamlets on the island were linked by hedgerows and concealed paths providing a strong defensive network. Go Noi was the base for the Vietcong’s Group 44 headquarters for Quảng Nam Province, the R-20 and V-25 Battalions and the T-3 Sapper Battalion and, it was believed, elements of the PAVN 2nd Division.

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On the morning of 4 May 1968 two Companies of the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines supported by tanks crossed the Liberty Bridge onto the island meeting only light resistance for the first few days. On 7 May Company A 1st Battalion 7th Marines relieved one Company from 2/7 Marines and Company K 3/7 Marines was added to the operation. By 8 May the Marines had lost 9 killed and 57 wounded and the Vietcong 88 killed. On the evening of 9 May the Marines encountered heavy resistance at the hamlet of Xuan Dai, after calling in air strikes the Marines overran the hamlet resulting in 80 PAVN killed.

On 13 May Company I 3rd Battalion 27th Marines was deployed to the Que Son mountains southwest of Go Noi moving east onto the island and the Marines on the island began sweeping west linking up at the Liberty Bridge on 15 May. Company E 2/7 Marines and the command group were airlifted out of the area on the evening of 15 May.

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The Marines then began a deception plan crossing the Liberty Bridge as if the operation had concluded and then crossing back onto the island on the early morning of 16 May. At 09:00 on 16 May 3/7 Marines encountered a PAVN Battalion at the hamlet of Phu Dong, the Marines were unable to outflank the PAVN and called in air and artillery support as the battle continued all day. By nightfall the PAVN abandoned their positions leaving more than 130 dead while Marine losses were 25 dead and 38 wounded. The hamlet was found to contain a PAVN Regimental headquarters and vast quantities of supplies.

On the morning of 17 May 3/7 Marines moved out of Phu Dong patrolling southeast. Company I 3/27 Marines was leading the column when it was ambushed by a strongly entrenched PAVN force near the hamlet of Le Nam. The other Marine Companies attempted to assist Company I but the PAVN defenses proved too strong and artillery support was the only way to relieve the pressure on Company I.  It was decided that Companies K and L 3/27 Marines would air assault into the area and the first helicopters landed at 15:00 and Company K broke through to relieve Company I at 19:30 while the PAVN withdrew. Marine losses were 39 dead and 105 wounded while PAVN losses were 81 killed. PFC Robert C. Burke a machine-gunner in Company I would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle.

On 18 May 3rd Battalion 5th Marines replaced 3/7 Marines and operational control passed to 3/27 Marines. At 09:30 the Marines began taking sniper fire from the hamlet of Le Bac (2). Companies K and L were sent to clear out the snipers but were quickly pinned down by another well-prepared PAVN ambush. Airstrikes and artillery fire was called in but due to the proximity of the opposing forces were of limited effect. At 15:00 Company M 3/27 Marines arrived by helicopter to replace Company L and cover the retreat of Company K and air and artillery strikes were directed against Le Bac (2). Marine losses were 15 killed, 35 wounded and over 90 cases of heat exhaustion while PAVN losses were 20 killed.

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For the next 6 days the Marines continued patrolling, suffering frequent ambushes despite strong preparatory fires. The Marines altered their tactics so that when the enemy was encountered they would hold their positions or pull back to allow air and artillery to deal with the entrenched forces. From 24–27 May a sustained fight took place at the hamlet of Le Bac (1), only ending when torrential rain made further fighting impossible. By the end of May total casualties for the battle were 138 Marines killed and 686 wounded while PAVN/Vietcong losses exceeded 600 killed.

On 26 May the 1st Battalion 26th Marines reinforced the operation, while on the 28th 3/27 Marines was relieved by 1st Battalion 27th Marines and 3/5 Marines was returned to the Division reserve. During early June the 1/26 and 1/27 Marines carried out ongoing search and clear operations on the island with regular ambushes by small PAVN/Vietcong forces.

On 5 June as the Marine Battalions moved west along the island they were ambushed by a PAVN force at the hamlet of Cu Ban (3), due the proximity of the enemy forces supporting fire was ineffective and a confused close-quarters battle raged throughout the day until tanks allowed the Marines to overrun the enemy positions. Marines losses were 7 killed and 55 wounded while PAVN losses were 30 killed.

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On 6 June 1/26 Marines was withdrawn from the operation and elements of the 1st Engineer Battalion arrived with orders to destroy the fortifications on Go Noi with 1/27 Marines providing security. On the early morning of 15 June a PAVN force attacked Company B 1/17 Marines’ night defensive position, the attack was defeated with 21 PAVN killed with no Marine losses.

On 19 June Companies B and D were ambushed by the PAVN at the hamlet of Bac Dong Ban, the fight lasted 9 hours before the Marines were able to overrun the PAVN bunkers. Marine losses were 6 killed and 19 wounded while the PAVN lost 17 killed.

On 23 June 2nd Battalion 27th Marines relieved 1/27 Marines on Go Noi. 2/27 Marines stayed on Go Noi until 16 July when it was relieved by 3/27 Marines. Marine losses during this period were 4 Marines killed and 177 wounded for 144 PAVN/Vietcong killed.

On 31 July, BLT 2/7 Marines which had just completed Operation Swift Play in the Da The mountains 6 km south of Go Noi arrived on the island and relieved 3/27 Marines.

Land clearing operations on Go Noi continued into August by which time much of the island had been completely leveled and seeded with herbicides. As enemy activity had been reduced to a minimal level it was decided to close the operation. While much of their infrastructure had been destroyed the PAVN/Vietcong continued to resist until the last as the Marines and Engineers withdrew across the Liberty Bridge harassed by sniper fire.

Operation Allen Brook concluded on 24 August, the Marines had suffered 172 dead and 1124 wounded and the PAVN/Vietcong 917 killed and 11 captured.

Operation Hump

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This was a search and destroy operation initiated on 8 November 1965 by the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in an area about 17.5 miles (28.2 km) north of Bien Hoa. The 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment deployed south of the Dong Nai River while the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry, conducted a helicopter assault on an LZ northwest of the Dong Nai and Song Be Rivers. The objective was to drive out Vietcong fighters who had taken position in several key hills. Little contact was made through 7 November, when B and C Companies settled into a night defensive position southeast of Hill 65, in triple-canopy jungle.

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At about 06:00 on 8 November C Company began a move northwest toward Hill 65, while B Company moved northeast toward Hill 78. Shortly before 08:00, C Company was engaged by a sizeable enemy force well dug into the southern face of Hill 65, armed with machine guns and shotguns. At 08:45, B Company was directed to wheel in place and proceed toward Hill 65 with the intention of relieving C Company, often relying on fixed bayonets to repel daring close range attacks by small bands of masked Vietcong fighters.

B Company reached the foot of Hill 65 at about 09:30 and moved up the hill. It became obvious that there was a large enemy force in place on the hill, C Company was suffering heavy casualties, and by chance, B Company was forcing the enemy’s right flank.

Under pressure from B Company’s flanking attack the enemy force—most of Vietcong regiment—moved to the northwest, whereupon the B Company commander called in air and incendiary artillery fire on the retreating rebels. The shells scorched the foliage and caught many rebel fighters ablaze, exploding their ammunition and grenades they carried. B Company halted in place in an effort to locate and consolidate with C Company’s platoons and managed to establish a coherent defensive line running around the hilltop from southeast to northwest, but with little cover on the southern side.

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Meanwhile, the Vietcong commander realized that his best chance was to close with the US forces so that the 173rd’s air and artillery fire could not be effectively employed. Vietcong troops attempted to out-flank the US position atop the hill from both the east and the southwest, moving his troops closer to the Americans. The result was shoulder-to-shoulder attacks up the hillside, hand-to-hand fighting, and isolation of parts of B and C Companies; the Americans held against two such attacks. Although the fighting continued after the second massed attack, it reduced in intensity as the Vietcong troops again attempted to disengage and withdraw, scattering into the jungle to throw off the trail of pursuing US snipers. By late afternoon it seemed that contact had been broken, allowing the two companies to prepare a night defensive position and collect their dead and wounded in the center of the position. Although a few of the most seriously wounded were extracted by USAF helicopters using Stokes litters, the triple-canopy jungle prevented the majority from being evacuated until the morning of 9 November.

The result of the battle was heavy losses on both sides—49 Paratroopers dead, many wounded, and 403 dead Vietcong troops as an estimate by the US troops.

Operation Hump is memorialized in a song by Big and Rich named 8th of November. The introduction, as read by Kris Kristofferson, is:

Battle of An Loc

The Battle of An Lộc was a major battle of the Vietnam War that lasted for 66 days and culminated in a decisive victory for South Vietnam. In many ways, the struggle for An Lộc in 1972 was an important battle of the war, as South Vietnamese forces halted the North Vietnamese advance towards Saigon.

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 An Lộc is the capital of Bình Phước Province located northwest of Military Region III. During North Vietnam’s “Easter Offensive”, (known in Vietnam as the Nguyen Hue Offensive) of 1972, An Lộc was at the centre of People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) strategy, its location on QL-13 near Base Area 708 in Cambodia allowed safeguarding supplies based out of a “neutral” location in order to reduce exposure to U.S. bombing. To protect this critical area, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had essentially a single division in Bình Phước Province, the 5th Division.  During the battle, the 5th Division was outnumbered by a combined force consisting of three PAVN and Viet Cong divisions. This fighting which ensued became the most protracted conflict of the 1972 Easter Offensive.
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On the same day that Lộc Ninh, a small town 20 miles (32 km) north of An Lộc on the border with Cambodia was assaulted, the PAVN 7th Division launched an attack on QL-13 in an attempt to cut off An Lộc from Saigon. To control route QL-13 was to control the road to Saigon, roughly 90 miles (140 km) to the south. This prevented resupply of ARVN forces in An Lộc.

On the evening of April 7, elements of the PAVN 9th Division overran Quần Lợi Base Camp. Its defenders, the 7th Regiment of the 5th Division, were ordered to destroy their heavy equipment (including a combined 105mm and 155mm artillery battery) and fall back to An Lộc.   Once captured, the PAVN used Quần Lợi as a staging base for units coming in from Cambodia to join the siege of An Lộc.  Key members of COSVN were based there to oversee the battle.

On April 8, the small town of Lộc Ninh was overrun and about half of the defenders escaped to An Lộc.

The ARVN defenders (8,000 strong) did have one card to play throughout the battle, the immense power of U.S. air support. The use of B-52 Stratofortress bombers (capable of carrying 108 MK82 (500 pound) bombs on one run) in a close support tactical role, as well as AC-119 Stinger and AC-130E Spectre gunships, fixed-wing cargo aircraft of varying sizes, AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) A-37s. These methods worked to blunt the PAVN offensive. At this stage in the war, the PAVN often attacked with PT-76 amphibious and T-54 medium tanks spearheading the advance, usually preceded by a massive artillery barrage. These tactics reflected Soviet doctrine, as the PAVN had been supplied with Soviet and Chinese Communist equipment, including jets, artillery, and surface to air missiles since the beginning of the war. The battle eventually stagnated and became a periodic trade of artillery barrages. This was most probably a result of casualties sustained in the frustrated attacks on heavily entrenched enemy positions in control of a withering array of supporting firepower.

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The first attack on the city occurred on April 13 and was preceded by a powerful artillery barrage. The PAVN captured several hills to the north and penetrated the northern portion of the city held by the 8th Regiment and 3rd Ranger Group.  ARVN soldiers were not accustomed to dealing with tanks, but early success with the M72 LAW, including efforts by teenaged members of the PSDF went a long way to helping the overall effort.  The 5th Division commander, General Hung, later ordered tank-destroying teams be formed by each battalion, which included PSDF members who knew the local terrain and could help identify strategic locations to ambush tanks.  They took advantage of the fact that the PAVN forces, who were not used to working with tanks, often let the tanks get separated from their infantry by driving through ARVN defensive positions. At that point, all alone inside ARVN lines, they were vulnerable to being singled out by tank-destroying teams.

 PAVN T-54 tanks destroyed in An An Lộc
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April 15 saw the second attack on the city. The PAVN were concerned that because the ARVN 1st Airborne Brigade had air-assaulted into positions west of the city, that they were now coming to reinforce the defenders. Again the PAVN preceded their attack with an artillery barrage followed by a tank-infantry attack. Like before, their tanks became separated from their infantry and fell prey to ARVN anti-tank weapons.  PAVN infantry followed behind the tank deployment, assaulted the ARVN defensive positions, and pushed farther into the city. B-52 strikes helped break up some PAVN units assembling for the attack. This engagement lasted until tapering off on the afternoon of April 16.

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Unable to take the city, the PAVN kept it under constant artillery fire. They also moved in more anti-aircraft guns to prevent aerial resupply. Heavy anti-aircraft fire kept VNAF helicopters from getting into the city after April 12.  In response, fixed wing VNAF aircraft (C-123’s and C-119’s) made attempts, but after suffering loses, the U.S. Air Force took over on April 19.  The US used C-130’s to parachute in supplies, but many missed the defenders and several aircraft were shot down or damaged. Low altitude drops during day and night did not do the job, so by May 2, the USAF began using High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) techniques. With far greater success, this method of resupply was utilized until June 25, when the siege was lifted and aircraft could land at An Lộc.  Over the entire course of the resupply effort, the garrison recovered several thousand tons of supplies—the only supplies it received during the siege.

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On May 11, 1972, the PAVN launched a massive all-out infantry and armor (T-54 medium tanks) assault on An Lộc. The attack was carried out by units of the 5th and 9th PAVN divisions.  This attack was repulsed by a combination of U.S. airpower and the determined stand of ARVN soldiers on the ground. Almost every B-52 in Southeast Asia was called in to strike the massing enemy tanks and infantry. The commander of the defending forces had placed a grid around the town creating many “boxes”, each measuring 1 km by 3 km in size, which were given a number and could be called by ground forces at any time. The B-52 cells (groups of 3 aircraft) were guided onto these boxes by ground-based radar. During May 11 and 12, the U.S. Air Force managed an “Arc Light” mission every 55 minutes for 30 hours straight—using 170 B-52’s and smashing whole regiments of PAVN in the process. Despite this air support, the PAVN made gains, and were within a few hundred meters of the ARVN 5th Division command post.   ARVN counter-attacks were able to stabilize the situation. By the night of May 11, the PAVN consolidated their gains.  On May 12, they launched new attacks in an effort to take the city, but again failed.  The PAVN launched one more attack on May 19 in honor of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. The defenders were not surprised, and the attack was broken up by U.S. air support and an ambush by the ARVN paratroopers.

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After the attacks of May 11 and 12, the PAVN directed its main efforts to cut off any more relief columns. However, by the 9th of June this proved ineffective, and the defenders were able to receive the injection of manpower and supplies needed to sweep the surrounding area of PAVN. By June 18, 1972, the battle had been declared over.

The victory, however, was not complete, QL-13 still was not open. The ARVN 18th Division was moved in to replace the exhausted 5th Division. The 18th Division would spread out from An Lộc and push the PAVN back, increasing stability in the area.

On August 8, the 18th Division launched an assault to retake Quần Lợi, but was stopped by the PAVN in the base’s reinforced concrete bunkers. A second attack was launched on August 9 with limited gains. Attacks on the base continued for 2 weeks; eventually one-third of the base was captured.  Finally, the ARVN attacked the PAVN-occupied bunkers with TOW missiles and M-202 rockets, breaking the PAVN defense and forcing the remaining defenders to flee the base.

The fighting at An Lộc demonstrated the continued ARVN dependence on U.S. air power and U.S. advisors. For the PAVN, it demonstrated their logistical constraints; following each attack, resupply times caused lengthy delays in their ability to properly defend their position.

Operation Lam Son 719

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Despite equivocal results in Cambodia, less than a year later the Americans pressed the South Vietnamese to launch a second cross-border operation, this time into Laos. Although the United States would provide air, artillery, and logistical support, Army advisers would not accompany South Vietnamese forces. The Americans’ enthusiasm for the operation exceeded that of their allies. Anticipating high casualties, South Vietnam’s leaders were reluctant to involve their army once more in extended operations outside their country.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was an ever-changing network of paths and roads. For North Vietnam, keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open was a top priority. American intelligence had detected a North Vietnamese buildup in the vicinity of Tchepone, Laos, a logistical center on the Ho Chi Minh Trail approximately twenty-five miles west of the South Vietnamese border. The Military Assistance Command regarded the buildup as a prelude to a North Vietnamese spring offensive in the northern provinces. Like the Cambodian incursion, the Laotian invasion was justified as benefiting Vietnamization, but with the added bonuses of spoiling a prospective offensive and cutting off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This would be the last chance for the South Vietnamese to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail while American forces were available to provide support.

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Phase I, designated DEWEY CANYON II, began at 0001 local time on 30 January, as US troops maneuvered to secure western Quang Tri province. An assault airstrip became operational at Khe Sanh by 3 February; Route 9 was repaired and cleared to the Laotian border by 5 February. Behind this cover, the better part of two South Vietnamese divisions massed at Khe Sanh in preparation for the cross border attack.

Because of security leaks, the North Vietnamese were not deceived. Within a week South Vietnamese forces numbering about 17,000 became bogged down by heavy enemy resistance, bad weather, and poor attack management. The ARVN had run into a superior North Vietnamese force fighting on a battlefield that the enemy had carefully prepared. In midsummer 1970, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) General Staff began drawing up combat plans, deploying forces, and directing preparation of the battlefield. By 8 February 1971, when the ARVN crossed the Laotian border, the North Vietnamese, by their own account, had massed some 60,000 troops in the Route 9-Southern Laos front. They included five main force divisions, two separate regiments, eight artillery regiments, three engineer regiments, three tank battalions, six anti-aircraft regiments, and eight sapper battalions, plus logistic and transportation units-according to North Vietnamese historians “our army’s greatest concentration of combined-arms forces . . . up to that point.”

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Aided by heavy U.S. air strikes, including B-52s, and plenty of artillery and helicopter gunship support, the South Vietnamese inched forward and after a bloody, month-long delay, air-assaulted on March 6 into the heavily bombed town of Tchepone. This was the last bit of good news from the front. This was the RVNAF’s last chance to make a dramatic impression upon the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese by now had massed five divisions with perhaps 45,000 troops-more than twice the ARVN force in Laos-for counterattacks. The North Vietnamese counterattacked with Soviet- built tanks, heavy artillery, and infantry. They struck the rear of the South Vietnamese forces strung out on Highway 9, blocking their main avenue of withdrawal. Enemy forces also overwhelmed several South Vietnamese firebases, depriving South Vietnamese units of desperately needed flank protection. The South Vietnamese also lacked enough antitank weapons to counter the North Vietnamese armor that appeared on the Laotian jungle trails and were inexperienced in the use of those they had. U.S. Army helicopter pilots flying gunship and resupply missions and trying to rescue South Vietnamese soldiers from their besieged hilltop firebases encountered intense antiaircraft fire.

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On March 16, ten days after Tchepone was taken, President Thieu issued the order to pull out, turning aside General Abrams’ plea for an expansion of the offensive to do serious damage to the trail.

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The ARVN withdrawal, conducted mainly along Route 9, ran from 17 until 24 March. A North Vietnamese ambush on 19 March littered the road with wrecked vehicles. Artillery pieces were abandoned, and a good many men had to make their way on foot to landing zones for evacuation. American media carried pictures of ARVN soldiers clinging to the skids of US helicopters.
The South Vietnamese lost nearly 1,600 men. The U.S. Army’s lost 215 men killed, 1,149 wounded, and 38 missing. The Army also lost 108 helicopters, the highest number in any one operation of the war. Supporters of helicopter warfare pointed to heavy enemy casualties and argued that equipment losses were reasonable, given the large number of helicopters and helicopter sorties (more than 160,000) that supported LAM SON 719. The battle nevertheless raised disturbing questions among Army officials about the vulnerability of helicopters in mid- or high-intensity conflict to any significant antiaircraft capability.

Watch a short 5-minute video from an American pilot who participated in the operation.  Afterward, click on the back arrow key to return to this article:

http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history/videos/a-soldiers-story-operation-lam-son-719

Battle of Quang Tri Province

The Battle for Quang Tri occurred in and around Quang Tri City (Quang Tri Province), the northernmost provincial capital of Republic of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive when the Vietcong and People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) attacked Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and American forces across major cities and towns in South Vietnam in an attempt to force the Saigon government to collapse. This included several attacks across northern I Corps, most importantly at Hue, Da Nang and Quang Tri City. After being put on the defensive in the city of Quang Tri, the anti-communist forces regrouped and forced the communists out of the town after a day of fighting.

 Quang Tri City looking northeast, fall 1967: the Quang Tri Citadel is at the upper left with Tri Buu Village beyond it; the Thach Han River is in the center
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In 1968, Quang Tri City was a small market town and the capital of Quang Tri Province, the northernmost province of South Vietnam, bordering North Vietnam to the north, and Laos to the west. Like the old imperial capital at Hue, Quang Tri City is located on Route 1. It is about 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) inland from the South China Sea along the eastern bank of the Thach Han River, 25 kilometers (16 mi) south of the former Demilitarized Zone.  Because Quang Tri City was an important symbol of South Vietnamese government authority and was arguably the most vulnerable provincial capital in South Vietnam, it was a prime target of the North Vietnamese during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese had attacked and briefly overrun and occupied the city ten months earlier, on April 6, 1967, in a large scale coordinated attack by a reinforced PAVN regiment, inflicting significant casualties on Allied Forces before the attack was defeated. They freed 220 Communist prisoners from a city prison, and caused widespread destruction at ARVN facilities in and around the city and in adjacent districts. The permanent loss of the city to the Communists would be a political embarrassment and weaken the government’s legitimacy, and would allow the establishment of a Communist administrative center in the South. The question was not whether the Communists would attack Quang Tri City again, but when.

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Particularly given their failure to hold Quang Tri City after overrunning and briefly occupying it in April 1967 despite committing a large force of about 2,500 men, the Communists became more aware of the difficulties of attacking and capturing the city. In the weeks before Tet, they had attempted to lure allied forces from the coastal lowlands to the mountains by threatening several of the Marine combat bases along Highway 9 in the western part of the province. But while the U.S. Marines had shifted some forces to their base at Khe Sanh, MACV commanders had reinforced eastern Quang Tri Province in late January with the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division. The existence of major American units near Quang Tri City came as a shock to the enemy, but with little time to make adjustments, the Communists decided to move forward with their original plan.

ARVN 1st Regiment airfield and compound at La Vang Thuong, fall 1967, looking south

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The brunt of the attack would fall on the ARVN forces in and around the city. These were the 1st Vietnamese Regiment, the 9th Airborne Battalion, an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) Troop attached to the 1st Regiment (2nd Troop of the ARVN 7th Cavalry), the National Police—a paramilitary body led by regular military officers stationed within the city—and Regional and Popular Force (militia) elements in the city. The 1st Regiment had two of its battalions in positions to the north of the city, and one to the northeast, protecting pacified villages in those areas. The Regiment’s fourth battalion was in positions south of the city in and around the regiment’s headquarters at La Vang. One Airborne company was bivouacked in Tri Buu village on the northern edge of the city with elements in the Citadel, and two Airborne companies were positioned just south of the city in the area of a large cemetery where Highway 1 crosses Route 555.

 January 27, 1968. 1st Cav LRP atop LZ Betty’s water tower.
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The 1st Brigade of the 1st US Cavalry Division commanded by Colonel Donald V. Rattan had been moved from near Hue and Phu Bai six days earlier to Quang Tri Province, with its headquarters at Landing Zone Betty two kilometers south of Quang Tri City, with the bulk of its force at LZ Sharon, another kilometer south, in order to launch attacks on Communist Base Area 101 roughly 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) to the west-southwest.  The brigade had an additional mission to block approaches into the city from the southwest but was primarily focused on its offensive mission. Accordingly, had quickly established two fire bases, one 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) west of the city and another in the middle of the Communist base areas in the hills west of Quang Tri City.  The 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was also moved into Quang Tri Province in late January, reinforcing the two brigades of the 1st Cavalry in the area.

 Start of Tet Offensive as seen from LZ Betty’s water tower.
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The coordinated Communist assault was scheduled to begin at 0200 on 31 January. The 10th Sapper began its attacks on time, but the arrival and attacks of the PAVN infantry and artillery units were delayed by at least two hours by heavy rains and swollen streams and their lack of familiarity with the geography of Quang Tri Province, and they did not start to move into position until about 0400. As a result, Regional and Popular Forces, local National Police elements, and elements of the 1st ARVN Regiment located within the city were able to respond to the sappers without having to contend with the main attack at the same time.

As the 814th Battalion was moving into position to attack Quang Tri from the northeast, it unexpectedly encountered the 9th ARVN Airborne company in Tri Buu village, which engaged it in a sharp firefight lasting about 20 minutes. The Airborne company was nearly annihilated and an American adviser killed, but its stubborn resistance stalled the 814th battalion’s assault on the Citadel and the city. By 0420, the heavy communist pressure and overwhelming numbers forced the surviving South Vietnamese paratroopers to pull back into the city, and the 814th attacked and attempted to enter the Citadel unsuccessfully.

The assault against the eastern and southeastern part the city was initially successful. At about 0420, as the 814th Battalion began its delayed assault on the Citadel, the K4 Battalion of the 812th PAVN Regiment skirted the lower edge of Tri Buu Village and swarmed into the city, attempting to seize strong points and assaulting the Citadel from the south. South Vietnamese irregulars and National Policemen slowed the enemy’s advance, however, and it’s assaults on the southern wall of the Citadel were beaten back. Adding to its difficulties was the failure of an expected “general uprising” it had been told to expect. To the south, the PAVN K6 battalion slammed unexpectedly into the two Airborne companies resulting in an intense, extended firefight.

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 Quang Tri City looking south, fall 1967: The Citadel is in the lower center and right; the cemetery at the junction of Route 555 and Highway 1 is at the far upper center and left (Highway 1 runs east and west at that point); the bridge in the distance carried Highway 1 across the Thach Han River
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Shortly after dawn the 1st Infantry Regimental commander ordered his battalions to recapture the city. His three battalions north of Quang Tri City began marching toward the capital. Along the way, they collided with the 808th Battalion blocking Highway 1 near the Trieu Phong District headquarters which temporarily stopped their assault. At about the same time, ARVN troops at La Vang began moving north toward the fighting between the Airborne companies and the K6 Battalion in the cemetery south of the city, and were ambushed by the K6th, slowing their advance to a crawl. Fighting south of the city there was heavy throughout the morning. Only the NVA K5 Battalion, holding a position in Hai Lang District to block reinforcements from Hue, remained unengaged in the fighting.

At the start of the communist attack, the ARVN 1st Regimental headquarters at La Vang and Col. Rattan’s headquarters at Landing Zone Betty south of La Vang came under sporadic rocket and mortar attacks and ground assaults by elements of the 10th Sapper Battalion, while extremely heavy fog hampered visibility. The fog also prevented shifting the 1st Battalion of the 8th US Cavalry Regiment (1st Cavalry Division) its base camp in the mountains west of Quang Tri. The 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, which was under the control of the 1st Cavalry Division, continued its base defense mission and just west of Quang Tri.

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This left only the 1st Battalion of the 12th US Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment to support the ARVN units engaged with the Communist. Both battalions had opened new fire bases to the west of Quang Tri, along the river valley leading to Khe Sanh. At approximately 1345 on 31 January, Col. Rattan directed the battalions to close out the new fire bases and launch assaults as soon as possible to reduce the Communists’ ability to bring additional forces into the city and also blocking their withdrawal. By 1600, the cavalry battalions had air assaulted into five locations northeast, east, and southeast of Quang Tri City where Brewer intelligence sources had showed Communist units located.  The American helicopters received heavy fire as they landed troops east of the city in the middle of the heavy weapons support of the K-4 Battalion, and fighting there continued until 1900 as the Communists fought with machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles. Engaged by ARVN forces in and near the city, and by American forces on the east, the K4 Battalion was soon overcome.

Two companies of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry air-assaulted southeast of Quang Tri engaging the K6 Battalion from the rear in a heavy firefight, while ARVN troops blocked and attacked it from the direction of the city. American helicopter gunships and artillery hit the Communist troops hard causing significant further casualties. By nightfall on the 31st, the battered 812th Regiment decided to withdraw, though clashes continued throughout the night.

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Quang Tri City was clear of Communist troops by midday on 1 February, and ARVN units with U.S. air support had cleared Tri Buu Village of PAVN troops. The remnants of the 812th, having been hit hard by ARVN defenders and American air power and ground troops on the outskirts of the city, particularly artillery and helicopters, broke up into small groups, sometimes mingling with crowds of fleeing refugees, and began to exfiltrate the area, trying to avoid further contact with Allied forces. They were pursued by the American forces in a circular formation forced contact with the fleeing Communists over the next ten days.  Heavy fighting continued with large well-armed Communist forces south of Quang Tri City, and there were lighter contacts in other areas. This pursuit continued throughout the first ten days of February.

The American military considered the Communist attack on Quang Tri “without a doubt one of the major objectives of the Tet offensive”.  They attributed the decisive Communist defeat to the hard-nosed South Vietnamese defense, effective intelligence on Communist movements provided by Robert Brewer, and the air mobile tactics of the 1st Cavalry Division. Between 31 January and 6 February, the allies killed an estimated 914 Communists and captured another 86 in and around Quang Tri City.

The rapid defeat of the regimental-size enemy force that assaulted Quang Tri City proved to be one of the most decisive victories the allies secured during the Tet Offensive. Aside from mopping up operations in the countryside, it was effectively over less than twenty-four hours after it had begun. Most elements of the 812th PAVN Regiment were so badly mauled that they avoided all contact for the next several weeks, when they otherwise might have played a role in the battle for Hue 50 kilometers (31 mi) to the south. Losing the province capital would have been a severe blow to South Vietnamese morale, and PAVN units could have caused extensive damage to nearby ARVN and American bases had they captured long range ARVN artillery pieces in the Citadel. They would also have cut off resupply traffic on Highway 1 to allied forces along the DMZ and the Marines at Khe Sanh. The PAVN’s swift defeat preserved an important symbol of South Vietnamese national pride and allowed the allies to devote more resources to other battles in northern I Corps, particularly to the struggle for Hue.

The Battle of Ben Het Special Forces Camp

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Ben Het Camp (also known as Ben Het Special Forces Camp, Ben Het Ranger Camp and FSB Ben Het) is a former U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) base northwest of Kon Tum in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The camp was notable for being the site of a tank battle between the U.S. Army and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), one of the few such encounters during the Vietnam War.
The 5th Special Forces Group Detachment A-244 first established a base at Ben Het in the early 1960s to monitor communist infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The base was located approximately 13 km from the Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia tri-border area, 15 km northwest of Đắk Tô and 53 km northwest of Kon Tum.

 One of two PT-76s from the PAVN 202nd Armored Regiment, destroyed by US M48 Patton’s, from the 1/69th Armored battalion, during the battle of Ben Het, March 3, 1969, Vietnam
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On 3 March 1969, Ben Het was attacked by the PAVN 66th Regiment, supported by armored vehicles of the 4th Battalion, 202nd Armored Regiment. One of the attacking PT-76s detonated a land mine, which alerted the camp and lit up the other PT-76s attacking the base. Flares were sent up, exposing adversary tanks, but sighting in on muzzle flashes, one PT-76 scored a direct hit on the turret of an M-48 of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, killing two crewmen and wounding two more. Another M-48, using the same technique, destroyed a PT-76 with their second shot. At daybreak, the battlefield revealed the wreckage of two PT-76s and one BTR-50 armored personnel carrier.

The PAVN 28th and 66th Regiments continued to besiege the base from May to June 1969.

Since January 1972 it had become clear that the North Vietnamese were building up for offensive operations in the tri-border region. ARVN forces had been deployed forward toward the border in order to slow the PAVN advance and allow the application of airpower to deplete North Vietnamese manpower and logistics. To counter the possible threat from the west, two regiments of the 22nd Division were deployed to Tân Cảnh and Đắk Tô and the 1st Squadron, 19th Armored Cavalry Regiment equipped with M41 tanks was deployed to Ben Het. On 24 April, the 2nd PAVN Division, elements of the 203rd Tank Regiment, and several independent regiments of the B-3 Front attacked Tân Cảnh and Đắk Tô rapidly overrunning both bases with their T-54 tanks.  On 9 May 1972, elements of the PAVN 203rd Armored Regiment assaulted Ben Het. ARVN Rangers destroyed the first three PT-76 tanks with BGM-71 TOW missiles, thereby breaking up the attack. The Rangers spent the rest of the day stabilizing the perimeter ultimately destroying 11 tanks and killing over 100 PAVN.

Battle of Ben Het 1969 Battle of Ben Het 1969

My friend, Frank Evans participated in this battle and wrote a book about it (Stand To…A Journey to Manhood) which can be found on Amazon.  Here is an excerpt about the battle:

Ben Het was under siege. Each day, a deadly flurry of artillery and mortar rounds destroyed bunkers and damaged equipment. Casualties increased. Small-scale ground attacks tested the defenses of the camp. Friendly patrols near the camp encountered enemy soldiers in groups of five to ten men daily. Frequently, larger enemy units operated near the camp. On a recent mission, a mobile strike force unit reported battling an entrenched battalion-sized force of at least two hundred. Convoys were ambushed regularly. Aircraft received ground fire at every attempt to land. Helicopters, and occasionally a C-130 or C-7A, dared to brave the machinegun and mortar fires on the airstrip to bring in supplies. Our radio communication with the tactical command post in Dak To kept them informed about how defenses were holding up here.
I began to appreciate the comparison that Sergeant Spence made between the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and Ben Het. Morale was high in spite of the constant barrage of enemy fires. Internal exchanges also relied upon radio, the least secure means of communication since the enemy could easily intercept them with a radio and the right frequency. We had to assume our conversations were being monitored; intermittently, an unknown radio station attempted to obtain friendly information on the location of patrols and their activities. The more secure field telephone landline wire was repeatedly cut by the constant bombardment or by saboteurs.
Sergeant Smith picked up the radio log and asked, “Anything goin’ on this morning, sir?”
“We had one CIDG KIA on the west hill last night. One of the MSF units lost two KIA and two WIA, plus two US WIA. One was pretty badly wounded. They ran into bad guys in bunkers and took heavy automatic weapons fire. They’re still in contact. The enemy has claymore mines, too.”
“Uh huh. Must’ve captured some of our claymores somewhere. I tell you, sir. The enemy’s moving all over the place around here. They’re gettin’ bolder.”
“We have two MSF companies reinforcing us plus the one here in the camp. Another one has been requested from Dak Pek to reinforce the MSF company in contact now. Spooky has been working the hills and trail networks.”
“I heard it. Three Gatling guns. Man, six thousand rounds per minute each! Sorta sounds like hmmmmmmmm…hmmmmmmmm…hmmmmmmmm. Those guns are spewing out red tracers every fifth round, but it looks like a steady stream of red lines from the aircraft to the ground. No wonder Charlie is afraid of the Dragon.  Thank you for the excerpt Frank and Thank you for your service!

Here too, is a YouTube video also describing the battle:

The Battle of Binh Ghia

The Battle of Binh Gia (Vietnamese: Trận Bình Giã), which was part of a larger communist campaign, was conducted by the Viet Cong from December 28, 1964, to January 1, 1965, during the Vietnam War in Bình Giã. The battle took place in Phước Tuy Province (now part of Bà Rịa–Vũng Tàu Province), South Vietnam.

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The year of 1964 marked a decisive turning point in the Vietnam War.  The fragility of the South Vietnamese government was reflected on the battlefield, where its military experienced great setbacks against the Viet Cong. Taking advantage of Saigon’s political instability, Communist leaders in Hanoi began preparing for war. Even though key members of North Vietnam’s Politburo disagreed on the best strategy to reunite their country, they ultimately went ahead to prepare for armed struggle against South Vietnam and their American supporters.

Towards the end of 1964, the Viet Cong commenced a series of large-scale military operations against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), as ordered by the North Vietnamese government. As part of their Winter-Spring Offensive, the Viet Cong unleashed its newly created 9th Division against the South Vietnamese forces at Bình Giã, fighting a large set-piece battle for the first time. Over a period of four days, the Viet Cong 9th Division held its ground and mauled the best units the South Vietnamese army could send against them, only breaking after intense attack by U.S. bombers.

In July 1964, the Viet Cong 271st and 272nd Regiments, began moving into the provinces of Bình Dương, Bình Long and Phước Long to carry out their mission. During the first phase of their campaign, the Viet Cong regiments overran several strategic hamlets at Xan Sang, Cam Xe, Dong Xa, and Thai Khai.  Between August and September 1964, Viet Cong regiments executed deep thrusts into Bình Dương and Châu Thành to apply additional pressure on South Vietnamese outposts situated on Route 14. During the second phase of their campaign, the Viet Cong ambushed two South Vietnamese infantry companies and destroyed five armored vehicles, which consisted of M24 Chaffee light tanks and M113 armored personnel carriers. The Viet Cong defeated regular ARVN units at the strategic hamlets of Bình Mỹ and Bình Co.

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 Colonel Ta Minh Kham (second from left), commander of the Viet Cong 272nd Regiment, with other high-ranking Viet Cong officers
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During the war about 6,000 people lived in Bình Giã, and most of whom were staunchly anti-communist. The inhabitants of Bình Giã were Roman Catholic refugees who had fled from North Vietnam in 1954 during Operation Passage to Freedom because of fears of Communist persecution.  To prepare for their main battle, the Viet Cong 272nd Regiment was ordered to block Inter-provincial Road No. 2 and 15, and destroy any South Vietnamese units attempting to reach Bình Giã from the south-western flank of the battlefield. In the days leading up to the battle, the Viet Cong often came out to harass the local militia forces. On December 9, 1964, the 272nd Regiment destroyed an entire South Vietnamese mechanized rifle company along Inter-provincial Road No. 2, destroying 16 M-113 APCs. On December 17, the 272nd Regiment destroyed another six armored vehicles on Inter-provincial Road No. 15.

During the early hours of December 28, 1964, elements of the Viet Cong 271st Regiment and the 445th Company, signaled their main attack on Bình Giã by penetrating the village’s eastern perimeter. There, they clashed with members of the South Vietnamese Popular Force militiamen, which numbered about 65 personnel. The militia fighters proved no match for the Viet Cong and their overwhelming firepower, so they quickly retreated into underground bunkers, and called for help.  Once the village was captured, Colonel Ta Minh Kham, the Viet Cong regimental commander, established his command post in the main village church and waited for fresh reinforcements, which came in the form of heavy mortars, machine guns and recoilless rifles. To counter South Vietnamese helicopter assaults, Colonel Kham’s troops set up a network of defensive fortifications around the village, with trenches and bunkers protected by land mines and barbed wire. The local Catholic priest, who was also the village chief, sent a bicycle messenger out to the Bà Rịa district headquarters to ask for a relief force. In response, the Bà Rịa district chief sent out elements of two Vietnamese Rangers battalions to retake Bình Giã. On December 29, two companies of the ARVN 33rd Ranger Battalion and a company from the 30th Ranger Battalion were airlifted into area located west of Bình Giã, by helicopters from the U.S. 118th Aviation Company to face an enemy force of unknown size.

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However, as soon as the soldiers from the 30th and 33rd Ranger Battalions arrived at the landing zone, they were quickly overwhelmed by the Viet Cong in a deadly ambush.  The entire 30th Ranger Battalion was then committed to join the attack, but they too did not initially succeed in penetrating the strong Viet Cong defensive lines. Several more companies of the Rangers then arrived for an attack from multiple directions. Two companies of the 33rd Ranger Battalion advanced from the northeast. One of them came to the outskirts of the village, but was unable to break through the enemy defenses. The other one, trying to outflank the enemy, had been lured into a kill zone in open terrain and were quickly obliterated in an ambush by the three VC battalions using heavy weapons. The two companies suffered a 70 percent casualty rate, and survivors were forced to retreat to the nearby Catholic church. The 30th Rangers had more success by assaulting from the western direction and succeeded in fighting their way into the village, aided by local residents. It however also suffered heavy losses, with the battalion commander and his American adviser severely wounded. The local civilians in Bình Giã retrieved weapons and ammunition from the dead Rangers, and hid the wounded government soldiers from the Viet Cong. The 38th Ranger Battalion, on the other hand, landed on the battlefield unopposed by the Viet Cong, and they immediately advanced on Bình Giã from the south. Soldiers from the 38th Rangers spent the whole day fighting, but they could not break through their enemies’ defenses to link up with the survivors hiding in the church, and fell back after calling in mortar fire to decimate Viet Cong fighters moving to encircle them.

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The morning of December 30, the 4th South Vietnamese Marine Battalion moved out to Biên Hòa Air Base, waiting to be airlifted into the battlefield.  The 1/4th Marine Battalion was the first unit to arrive on the outskirts of Bình Giã, but the 1st Company commander decided to secure the landing zone, to wait for the rest of the battalion to arrive instead of moving on to their objective.   After the rest of the 4th Marine Battalion had arrived, they marched towards the Catholic church to relieve the besieged Rangers. About one and a half hours later, the 4th Marine Battalion linked up with the 30th, 33rd and 38th Ranger Battalions, as the Viet Cong began withdrawing to the northeast. That afternoon the 4th Marine Battalion recaptured the village, but the Viet Cong was nowhere to be seen, as all their units had withdrawn from the village during the previous night, linking with other Viet Cong elements in the forest to attack the government relief forces.  On the evening of December 30, the Viet Cong returned to Bình Giã and attacked from the south-eastern perimeter of the village. The local villagers, who discovered the approaching Viet Cong, immediately sounded the alarm to alert the ARVN soldiers defending the village. The South Vietnamese were able to repel the Viet Cong, with support from U.S. Army helicopter gunships flown out from Vung Tau airbase.

While pursuing the Viet Cong, a helicopter gunship from the U.S. 68th Assault Helicopter Company was shot down and crashed in the Quảng Giao rubber plantation, about four kilometers away from Bình Giã, killing four of its crewmen. On December 31, the U.S. Marines Advisory Group sent a team of four personnel, led by Captain Donald G. Cook, to Bình Giã to observe conditions on the battlefield.  At the same time, the 4th Marine Battalion was ordered to locate the crashed helicopter and recover the bodies of the dead American crewmen. Acting against the advice of his American advisor, Major Nguyễn Văn Nho, commander of the 4th Marine Battalion, sent his 2/4th Marine Battalion company out to the Quảng Giao rubber plantation.  Unknown to the 4th Marine Battalion, the Viet Cong 271st Regiment had assembled in the plantation. About one hour after they had departed from the village of Bình Giã, the commander of the 2/4th Marine Battalion reported via radio that his troops had found the helicopter wreckage and bodies of four American crewmen.  Shortly afterward, the Viet Cong opened fire and the 2/4th Marine Battalion was forced to pull back. In an attempt to save the 2nd Company, the entire 4th Marine Battalion was sent out to confront the Viet Cong. As the lead element of the 4th Marine Battalion closed in on the Quảng Giao plantation, they were hit by accurate Viet Cong artillery fire, which was soon followed by repeated human wave attacks.  Having absorbed heavy casualties from the Viet Cong’s ambush, the 2/4th Marine Battalion had to fight their way out of the plantation with their bayonets fixed.  During the entire ordeal, the company did not receive artillery support because the plantation was beyond the range of 105mm artillery guns based in Phước Tuy and Bà Rịa.  They, however, escaped with the crucial support of the U.S. aircraft and helicopters whose rocket attacks forced the enemy to pull back and halted their attempt at pursuit.

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In the morning of December 31, the 4th Marine Battalion returned to the crash site with the entire force and the American graves were located and their corpses were dug up. At about 3 pm, a single U.S. helicopter arrived on the battlefield to evacuate the casualties, but they only picked up the bodies of the four American crewmen, while South Vietnamese casualties were forced to wait for another helicopter to arrive.  At 4 pm, Major Nguyễn Văn Nho ordered the 4th Marine Battalion to carry their casualties back to the village, instead of continuing to wait for the helicopters. As the 4th Marine Battalion began their return march, three Viet Cong battalions, with artillery support, suddenly attacked them from three directions. The battalion’s commanding and executive officers were immediately killed and air support was not available. Two Marine companies managed to fight their way out of the ambush and back to Bình Giã, but the third was overrun and almost completely wiped out. The fourth company desperately held out at a hilltop against Viet Cong artillery barrages and large infantry charges, before slipping out through the enemy positions at dawn. The 4th Marine Battalion of 426 men lost a total of 117 soldiers killed, 71 wounded and 13 missing.  Among the casualties were 35 officers of the 4th Marine Battalion killed in action, and the four American advisers attached to the unit were also wounded.  Backed by U.S. Air Force bombers, on January 1 three battalions of ARVN Airborne reinforcements arrived, they were too late as most of the Viet Cong had already withdrawn from the battlefield.

 The Bình Giã victory monument located in Châu Đức District, Bà Rịa–Vũng Tàu

The battle of Bình Giã reflected the Viet Cong’s growing military strength and influence, especially in the Mekong Delta region. It was the first time the Viet Cong launched a large-scale operation, holding its ground and fighting for four days against government troops equipped with armor, artillery, and helicopters, and aided by U.S. air support and military advisers. The Viet Cong demonstrated that when well-supplied with military supplies from North Vietnam, they had the ability to fight and inflict damage even on the best ARVN units.

The Viet Cong apparently suffered light casualties with only 32 soldiers officially confirmed killed, and they did not leave a single casualty on the battlefield.  In recognition of the 271st Regiment’s performance during the Bình Giã campaign, the NLF High Command bestowed the title ‘Bình Giã Regiment’ on the unit to honor their achievement.

Unlike their adversaries, the South Vietnamese military suffered heavily in their attempts to recapture the village of Bình Giã and secure the surrounding areas. The South Vietnamese and their American allies lost the total of about 201 personnel killed in action, 192 wounded and 68 missing In just four days of fighting, two of South Vietnam’s elite Ranger companies were destroyed and several others suffered heavy losses, while the 4th Marine Battalion was rendered ineffective as a fighting force.  At that stage of the war, Bình Giã was the worst defeat experienced by the South Vietnamese.  Despite their losses, the South Vietnamese army considered the battle as their victory and erected a monument at the site of the battle to acknowledge the sacrifices of the soldiers who had fallen to retake Bình Giã.

The Hill Fights

The Hill Fights (also known as the First Battle of Khe Sanh) was a battle during the Vietnam War between the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 325C Division and United States Marines in spring of 1967.

On 20 April operational control of the Khe Sanh area passed to the 3rd Marine Regiment.

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On 22 April 1967 SLF Bravo comprising 2nd Battalion 3rd Marines supported by HMM-164 had commenced Operation Beacon Star on the southern part of the Street Without Joy straddling Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên Provinces against the Vietcong 6th Regiment and 810th and 812th Battalions.

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On 24 April 2nd Platoon, Company B, 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines moved to Hill 700 to establish a mortar position to support another Company.  5 Marines then moved to Hill 861 to establish an observation post, but as they entered a bamboo grove near the summit they were ambushed by the PAVN killing 4 Marines.

29 Apr 1967, Hill 861, South Vietnam --- 4/29/1967-Hill 861, South Vietnam- Picture shows US Marines standing on Hill 861 after a three day battle with the North Vietnamese. They are all carrying heavy artillery and the man in the foreground is leaning on his gun and wearing a pancho. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
29 Apr 1967, Hill 861, South Vietnam — 4/29/1967-Hill 861, South Vietnam- Picture shows US Marines standing on Hill 861 after a three-day battle with the North Vietnamese. They are all carrying heavy artillery and the man in the foreground is leaning on his gun and wearing a poncho. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

After this contact, a squad was sent to investigate and rescued the lone survivor of the ambush, as they attempted to recover the bodies of the dead they were met with fire and withdrew into the mortar position. Another squad moved to the ambush site and recovered two bodies but as an evacuation helicopter approached the hilltop it was hit by heavy fire, which was suppressed by helicopter gunships.

1st and 3rd Platoons Company B were then ordered to move southeast across Hill 861 to cut off the PAVN but were hit by mortar fire, medevac helicopters were called in, attracting PAVN fire each time. 1st and 3rd Platoons dug in for the night while 2nd Platoon withdrew to Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB).  Marines losses for the day were 12 dead, 2 missing (later found dead) and 17 wounded.

The next morning Company B continued its slow advance on Hill 861, hampered by fog, difficult terrain and PAVN fire. On the afternoon of 25 April, Company K, 3rd Marines (which was scheduled to relieve Company B at KSCB from 29 April) arrived at KSCB and immediately moved towards Hill 861 to support Company B.  1st and 3rd Platoons Company K moved up Hill 861 on different approaches and 1st Platoon was hit by fire from well-entrenched PAVN 300m from the summit. 2nd Platoon was sent to reinforce 1st Platoon and the fighting continued until nightfall when the Marines dug in.  At 18:00 Company K, 9th Marines was flown into KSCB to support the attack.

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At 05:00 on 26 April the 3rd Battalion command post and KSCB were hit by mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Company K continued their assault on Hill 861 and was joined by Company K, 9th Marines around midday. The assault made little progress and the Marines withdrew protected by fire from helicopter gunships.  Company B was also heavily engaged throughout the morning eventually breaking contact at 12:00 and establishing a defensive perimeter on a knoll, medevac helicopters were called in but as they approached this brought PAVN mortar fire and by 14:45 the Company commander reported that he was unable to move. Artillery was then walked into and around the Company’s position forcing the PAVN to fall back, a Marine platoon was then sent to assist Company B as it fell back to the Battalion command post.  

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On 27 April 3/3 Marines returned to KSCB for replacements and Battery B 12th Marines arrived at KSCB to support Battery F. Marine artillery and aircraft were used to pound Hill 861 throughout the 27th and 28th, dropping 518,700 pounds of bombs and 1800 artillery round on the hill. Due to the dense foliage and overhead cover protecting many of the bunkers Marine aircraft dropped Snakeye bombs to remove the foliage and expose the bunkers and then larger bombs (up to 2000 lb) to destroy them.

The Marines’ plan was for 2/3 Marines to take Hill 861, then 3/3 Marines would move west securing the ground between Hill 861 and Hill 881 South.   2/3 Marines would then provide flank security for 3/3 Marines and take Hill 881 North.

On the afternoon of 28 April 2/3 Marines moved up Hill 861 with minimal opposition as the PAVN had withdrawn from the Hill. The Marines found 25 bunkers and numerous fighting positions and reported an odor of dead bodies across the hilltop.

Hill 881 South

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On 29 April with 2/3 Marines having secured Hill 861, 3/3 Marines advanced from KSCB towards a hill 750m northeast of Hill 881S that was to be used as an intermediate position for the attack on Hill 881S. Company M, 9th Marines engaged a PAVN platoon, while Company M 3rd Marines secured the intermediate position and dug in.

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On 30 April 2/3 Marines moved from Hill 861 to support 3/3 Marines and walked into a PAVN bunker complex suffering 9 killed and 43 wounded, the Marines backed off to let artillery and air support hit the bunkers and then overran them.  Company M 3rd Marines and Company K 9th Marines began their assault on Hill 881S encountering minimal resistance until 10:25 when they were hit by mortar fire and then heavy fire from numerous PAVN bunkers. The Marines were pinned down and only able to disengage after several hours with gunship and air support, the Marines suffered 43 killed and 109 wounded in the engagement while PAVN losses were 163 killed. Company M 3rd Marines was rendered combat ineffective and was replaced by Company F 2/3 Marines and Company E, 9th Marines was deployed to KSCB on the afternoon of 1 May.

The Marines withdrew from Hill 881S to allow for an intense air bombardment, on 1 May 166 Marine sorties were flown against Hills 881 North and South and over 650,000 lbs of bombs were dropped on them resulting in over 140 PAVN killed.

On 2 May Companies K and M, 9th Marines assaulted Hill 881S capturing it with minimal resistance by 14:20. The Marines discovered over 250 bunkers protected by anywhere between 2 and 8 layers of logs and then 4–5 ft of earth, only 50 bunkers remained intact after the bombing.

Hill 881 North

At 10:15 on 2 May Companies E and G 2/3 Marines assaulted Hill 881N from the south and east. Company G encountered a PAVN position and pulled back to allow for artillery support. Company E almost reached the summit of the hill when it was hit by an intense rainstorm and the Battalion was pulled back into night defensive positions.

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At 04:15 on 3 May a PAVN force attacked Company E’s night defensive position, penetrating the east of the position and reoccupying some bunkers. A Marine squad sent to drive out the PAVN was hit by machine gun fire and a scratch squad of engineers was sent to support them while air and artillery strikes were called in on the PAVN.  A flareship arrived overhead and the Marines on Hill 881S could see approximately 200 PAVN forming up to attack Company E from the west and fired over 100 rounds of recoilless rifle fire to break up this fresh assault. At dawn, reinforcements were flown in to support Company E while Company H 2/3 Marines attacked the PAVN from the rear. The last bunker was cleared at 15:00, 27 Marines were killed and 84 wounded in the attack, while the PAVN had lost 137 killed and 3 captured. Prisoner interrogations revealed plans for another attack on the Marine positions that night but this did not occur.

At 08:50 on 5 May Companies E and F 2/3 Marines began their assault on Hill 881N, PAVN fire increased as they neared the summit and both Companies pulled back to allow for air and artillery strikes. The assault resumed at 13:00 and by 14:45 the hilltop had been captured.

After securing Hill 881N the Marines thoroughly searched the area around Hills 881N and 881S and air and artillery strikes were called in on suspected PAVN positions, but it appeared that the PAVN had withdrawn north across the DMZ or west into Laos.

dworsky-r12Hill 861 in the forefront and beyond are 881S (left peak) and 881N

On 9 May Company F 2/3 Marines encountered a PAVN force 3.2 km northwest of Hill 881N, artillery fire was called in and Company E was deployed in support. The engagement resulted in 24 Marines killed and 19 wounded while PAVN losses were 31 killed, while a further 203 recent graves were discovered in the area.

At midnight on 9/10 May the PAVN attacked Reconnaissance Team Breaker of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, the PAVN could have easily overrun the Marines but instead targeted the Marine helicopters attempting to extract them severely damaging several helicopters. Marine losses were 4 Reconnaissance Team members and 1 helicopter pilot, while PAVN losses were 7 dead.

The Hill Fights officially ended on 10 May. Marine losses were 155 dead and 425 wounded while PAVN losses were 940 confirmed dead.  Intelligence gathered after the battle was over found that the PAVN plan was to build up stores and positions north of KSCB, isolate the base from resupply by attacks on Marines bases in northern I Corps, launch a diversionary attack on Lang Vei Special Forces Camp (which occurred as scheduled on 4 May) and then several Regiments of the 325C Division would overrun KSCB, however, the encounter on 24 April had frustrated the PAVN plan.

The Battle of Trang Bang

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1ST BDE – A combined arms team of 25th Inf Div armor and infantry killed more than 100 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in a third full day of heavy fighting 54 kms northwest of Saigon.  The actions brought to 340 the total number of enemy dead since elements of the 2nd Bde 27 Inf. Wolfhounds of the 25th Division came in contact with an estimated enemy regiment in rice paddies and hedgerows near the district capital of Trang Bang.

The action began as Co B, 2nd Bn, 14th Inf, touched down in open fields east of a small village four kms west of the scene of a 20-hour battle that cost enemy forces 87 dead.  Repeating the first fight, the company came under heavy enemy small arms, automatic weapons and rocket fire as it approached the village.  Calling for reinforcements, two more companies joined the battle.  They also began to return fire with small arms, machine guns and grenade launchers against the entrenched enemy.

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Soon after the contact began helicopter gunships, artillery and Air Force fighter bombers were called in to aid the embattled battalion.  In addition, a nearby armor task force, led by the 2nd Bn, 34th Armor, with Co C of the 1st Bn (Mech), 5th Inf, sped to the scene of the fight to block off the village to the south.  Repeated assaults by the U.S. forces were stopped by the enemy.  At nightfall, the infantry-armor task force pulled back while 20 air strikes and 5000 rounds of artillery pounded the area throughout the night.

An early morning assault again halted when the ground units received heavy fire upon approaching the village.  After the second series of artillery and air strikes, the U.S. forces encountered only light resistance and swept through the village.  According to LTC Alfred M. Bracy, task force commander, an estimated Viet Cong and North Vietnamese battalion had occupied the village.   Bracy praised his men for their actions, stating that their morale was high despite the two around-the-clock battles in three days.  “There’s a job to do and we will do it,” said Bracy of his unit’s spirit.

SP4 Jimmy J. Mathis of Cochran, Ga., repeated his commander’s comments,  “We’ve had so much contact lately, doing the right thing is just becoming natural in a fight.”  A few of the men even expressed a certain sympathy for the enemy.  “When I get tired and worn out, I think about how much better off we are than Charlie, and I feel better,” said SP4 Daniel R. Mitchell of Santa Maria, Calif., as he watched an air strike fall on the enemy.  Captured enemy equipment in the action included 14 AK-47 assault rifles, 2 RPG-2 rocket launchers, 6 Chicom light machine guns and thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition.

This is also the same village made infamous in 1972 when a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot mistakenly dropped napalm on the village.  A photo taken shows a young girl who was severely burned and running up the street toward troops (Napalm girl).
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VC MACHINE GUN A captured Viet Cong heavy anti-aircraft machine gun receives close inspection by members of the 2nd Bn, 34th Armor, 25th Inf Div, who captured it in a battle 54 kms northwest of Saigon.  (Photo By SP5 Gary Johnson)

Battle of Tam Quan

The following account is told by Rigo Ordaz who participated in the battle and published this article on History dot com.  The Battle of Tam Quan Dec. 6-20 pitted elements of the Ist Cavalry Division’s First Brigade and the First Battalion (Mechanized) 50th Infantry against a tenacious and well-fortified enemy of the 22nd NVA Regiment of the 3rd (Sao Vang-Yellow Star) NVA Division. The battle took place close to the town of Tam Quan in the Central Highland’s coastal northern part of Binh Din Province. The Battle of Tam Quan was the biggest and most successful during Operation Pershing. The victorious U.S. units destroyed at least two battalions of the 22nd NVA Regiment which was setting up for the upcoming 1968 Tet Offensive. It accounted for 1/8 of all enemy killed for the whole year. When the smoke of the battle cleared the 1st Cavalry Division and the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry emerged victorious and the enemy lost over 650 of their troops against only 58 U.S casualties in a battle which is rated 15th of the 20 deadliest battles of the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, the 1/50(M) Infantry lost 12 Americans on the 10th of December alone.

Aerial reconnaissance forces of the 1st Cavalry Divisions had found many indications of a troop buildup which includes an enormous Russian Ship to Shore radio on the beach.  During the month of November and the first part of December 1967 there were many indications that the enemy was building up forces in preparation for the coming Tet Offensive in the Bong Son plains of Binh Din Province. Their major targets would be U.S. and ARVN forces and the major district capitals.

On the 6th day of December a reconnaissance helicopter of the 1/9th , 1st Cavalry Division spotted a radio antenna sticking out of a hooch in the vicinity of the village of Dai Dong . Troop A 1/9th sent a platoon of the Blues (Infantry) to investigate. At 1630 Hours while approaching the area the platoon came under intense automatic and small arms fire and was pinned down. The Weapons Platoon of the 1/9 was sent in to help and they also were pinned down and unable to move. They had stumbled upon a large enemy force of the 22nd NVA Regiment. This was the beginning of the Battle of Tam Quan.

The two platoons were in great danger of being overrun and destroyed. It was late in the afternoon and soon it would be night time. At 1725 the 1st Bde assumed control of the action from the 2nd Bde and directed B Co. 1/8 Cav to the contact area and joined up with a platoon of the A Co. 1/50(Mech) Infantry which had been dispatched from LZ English a few miles away. The combined troops encountered stiff resistance from a well-entrenched enemy. With the firepower of the platoon of APCs they were finally able to extract the two platoons of 1/9th by 2100 Hrs. There is no doubt that had it not been for the firepower of the APCs of A Co. 1/50 (Mech) Infantry, the mission would have been more perilous and at a greater cost of American lives. A 1/50 and B 1/8th Cav established their night perimeter and called in artillery and illumination for the night. They had no further contact that night.

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The flamethrower tracks (Zippo) of the 1/50 Mech were especially useful in neutralizing the bunkers and trenches since the 1st Cav Div. had no tanks attached to them at the time. Two D-7 bulldozers from the 19th Engineers were brought in to destroy the bunkers and to clear a pathway for 1/50 APCs. The Engineers had several KIAs from their unit and were credited with killing 10 NVA soldiers.  Delta Company 1/50 (Mech) was released from the 2nd Bde and became OPCON to 1/8 Cav, First Bde at 1230 Hrs on 7 December. At 1406 hrs, A,& B 1/8 Cav and Delta Co. 1/50 Mech with flame thrower APCs successfully penetrated the initial bunker and trench network. Delta Company formed all of its APCs in a line facing east with troops of the 1/8 Cav in between the tracks. With all of the company’s 50 Cal. and M60s , M79s and personal weapons going on at the same time, it was beautiful sights and sounds. One of the 1/8 Cav troopers later mentioned that they had never heard so much racket in their life. The enemy probably thought the same thing.

Delta Co. 1/50 Mech and 1/8th Cav had succeeded in penetrating the initial bunker and trench network on the first day U.S. troops counter-attacked. Soon we started seeing some of the enemy coming out of the bunkers some with arms missing, not a sign of pain on their faces. They must have been doped up and some of them still continued firing. Every evening when we pulled to a defensive position for the night we would get replenished with ammunition, food, and hopefully some letters from home.

Although we seemed to have the upper hand in this battle, none of us knew if we were going to make it.

Two companies of the 2/8 Cav were sent northeast to the beach area to serve as a blocking force. They had only sporadic fire during the day.  Their CP was momentarily pinned down as they tried to cross a rice paddy. The CP was finally extracted at 1900 Hrs. An ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) unit conducting screening operations to the north of the contact area was engaged in heavy contact throughout the day with enemy forces trying to escape to the north. The ARVN force conducting screening operation to the south had no contact.

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On the morning of December 7, the commander of the 1st Bde, Col. Rattan committed Delta Company, the newest company in the battalion to the battle. Delta Company had just been formed upon arrival of the 1/50(M) Inf. Bn to Vietnam September 22, 1967. It was formed from personnel from HQ Co, Supply, other companies, and new replacements. The battalion had just started operations on October 7, 1967, and within a month it was already in the thick of its first major battle. When the order came we had been operating out of LZ Pony, a Green Beret post in the middle of 506 Valley. For the past month of November, Delta 1/50 2nd platoon had been going out on patrols on foot in the high mountains of the 506 Valley and then we pulled night security for the Special Forces camp at night. Delta Company 1/50 was spread out in the AO. Some of the troops were at Uplift, some troops were with the CO, Cpt Bruce Braun at Uplift and LZ English, 2nd Platoon + was at LZ Pony.

When Lt Welch, second Platoon leader yelled, ” OK everybody, let’s mount up”. I didn’t know what he was talking about because we had been on foot or combat assaults since I got to Vietnam and I didn’t know we had M113 APCs or ACAVS. We all climbed gladly into the APCs but were held up for a while because we were missing two troopers. Eventually, we found them playing cards at the little club the Green Berets had there. Finally, we took off and by 1145 Hrs we were on Hwy One close to the contact area waiting for further orders.

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Tank on perimeter at LZ Uplift

Delta mortar platoon had been called to LZ Uplift (Our Bn basecamp) to replenish their mortar loads and joined the rest of the company at the contact site. The 1/8 Cav had air assaulted the rest of their companies and had started their attack in the initial contact area by 0915 Hrs, but were pulled back because they encountered stiff enemy resistance. A barrage of fire from well-prepared enemy positions, and well-camouflaged bunkers and trenches halted their advance. As they pulled back the area was prepped with artillery, CS, ARA, and air strikes which were called in to hit the area.

On December 8, after an early morning artillery TOT hit the enemy positions around the original area of contact. It was followed by an air strike and CS (Tear Gas) to drive the enemy out of the bunkers. The wind shifted and the CS cloud hit us as we were poised to attack. The problem was that there were not enough gas masks to go around. Some of the troops were choking and coughing. Even with the gas mask on, the CS was so concentrated that all our body was stinging with the gas. Most of the ARVNs didn’t have gas masks and were seen running toward a ravine for protection.

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At 0845 hrs on Dec. 8, D 1-50 Mech began a reconnaissance in force to the east edge of the village (Dai Dong 2) and we encountered light resistance. We pushed east and north and then we returned to the starting point. C 1-8 Cav had replaced B 1-8 which had been in the initial assault on the 6th Dec. Delta 1-50 Mech. kept on working with A and C 1-8 Cav as we conducted a coordinated attack east and north finding many destroyed bunkers and enemy killed. We swept back through the same area policing the battlefield. Some of the guys in the mortar platoon loaded dead NVA on their APCs trimbane and took them to a designated area. Delta Co. mortars, for the most part, were in an infantry role since a lot of the Red Leg fire missions were being coordinated by Brigade Hqs.

We returned to a night perimeter at 1530. On this day HQ Co. and B 1-50 Mech. became OPCON to the 1st Bde and were sent to LZ English north, a secure area, to prepare for employment. At 1245 hrs the two platoons of Alpha 1-50 Mech were sent to LZ Lowboy and LZ English for rest and to assume their defensive postures. The 1-8 Cav units operating in the beach area to the northeast had only light contact from snipers. The ARVN screening force to the north of the contact area had no contact with the enemy. The southern screening force engaged the 8th Bn, 22nd NVA Regiment, this engagement ended at 1500 Hrs.

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On 9 December, D 1-50 Mech along with A and C 1-8 Cav began the final sweep through Dai Dong at 0845 Hrs after artillery and CS strikes. There was little enemy resistance during the sweep and the southern edge of the village was reached by 1530 Hrs. The force returned to the northwestern edge of the village and established that location at 1630 hrs and returned to LZ English for some much-needed rest and security of the LZ. Delta 1-50 Mech had been in combat for three days.

Also on the 9th Dec., at 0700 Hrs. Bravo company 1-50 Mech moved out of LZ English North under the control of Task Force Dolphin (1-50 Mech (-) and headed toward the beach area where it linked up with B 1-8 Cav. C and D 1-12 Cav set up blocking positions in the beach area. The southern screening force, ARVN 40th Rgmt. came under attack by elements of the 8th Bn. 22nd NVA Regiment. At 0520 Hours, the attack was repulsed but they had sporadic to heavy contact continued during the day five clicks north of MY AN (1) village.

On 10 DECEMBER at approximately 0900 hours, the commanding officer of the 40th ARVN Regiment reported that civilians were seen running from the village of Troung Lam. Task Force 1-12 relieved TF DOLPHIN and sent B 1-12 to join up with D 1-12 and B 1-50 Mech. At 0925 Hrs. B 1-50 was directed to turn south and search Troung Lam (1) At 1055 hours while approaching Troung Lam (1) B 1-50 Mech came under intense small arms and automatic weapons fire. This was the first time B 1-50 Mech. had engaged the enemy in the Battle of Tam Quan. B 1-12 maneuvered to the right flank and C 1-12 air assaulted to the left flank at 1220 Hrs. Apparently, B 1-50 Mech company had been split up by a big ditch and part of the company came under intense enemy fire. The other part of the company could not cross the ditch to come to the aid of the beleaguered troops. The company lost 10 soldiers in that encounter. Three coordinated attacks by the three companies were made on the enemy positions during the afternoon. At the time B 1-50 Mech was in contact, Delta Co. 1-50 was still at LZ  English having spent the night there. We spent the morning getting ammo, and getting our weapons cleaned. D 1-50 Mech’s rest was cut short as again they were called to the southern screening force area where the 40th ARVN was in heavy contact and were caught in a crossfire from elements of the 8th Bn 22nd NVA Regiment at BS911048. Each time the ARVNS wanted to attack they came under a crossfire. Delta 1-50 Mech. came to the rescue and hooked up with the ARVNS at 1545 hrs on the 10th of December. At 1600Hrs they made a combined attack close to the village of My An(2) The UPI Reports for that day read like this:

SAIGON-(UPI) U.S. ARMOR SPURTING FLAME AND MACHINEGUN FIRE BROKE THROUGH A NORTH VIETNAMESE TRAP AND RESCUED SOUTH VIETNAMESE TROOPS IN THE SIX DAY BATTLE OF BONG SON PLAIN. COMMUNIST LOSSES IN THE CAMPAIGN 300 MILES NORTH OF SAIGON ROSE TO AT LEAST 305 SUNDAY AFTER THE HELL-FOR-LEATHER TYPE DASH BY ARMORED PERSONNEL CARRIERS (APCs) OF THE 1ST. AIR CAVALRY DIVISION SUNDAY IN THE SIX DAY BATTLE OF BONG SON PLAIN.

UPI BONG SON– ON THE COASTAL BONG SON PLAIN, ABOUT 1,000 SURVIVORS OF THE NORTH VIETNAM’S 22ND REGIMENT WERE FRANTICALLY UNLEASHING ALL THEIR FIREPOWER FROM BUNKERS DUG UNDER HUTS OF A RICE PADDY VILLAGE. THE IST CAV SENT A COMPANY OF APC’S TO THE RESCUE SUNDAY WHEN SOUTH VIETNAMESE TROOPS WERE CAUGHT IN A CROSS FIRE.

During that firefight on the 10th of Dec, Lt. Sodowsky (D 1-50) was killed and we had others wounded including some straight legs who were working beside us. It is a possibility that some of the wounded were by friendly fire. Our two medics in Delta Company, Pete Tovar, and Ron Provencher worked frantically tending the wounded right away. In that engagement, Pete Tovar distinguished himself when he went to the aid of the wounded soldiers under a hail of automatic and small arms fire. His heroic actions earned him a Bronze Star with a V device.

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While this action was taking place, Bravo 1-50 Mech was about 15 Kilometers away. Each line company had two medics which most of the time had their hands full with their own company during a firefight.

Delta 1-50 remained OPCON to Task Force Dolphin. The commanders of the 40th ARVN and TF Dolphin were in a Command and Control helicopter above the battlefield controlled the combined attack. They kept in constant contact with Delta commander through his RTOs Louis Friesby and Fred Bantle.

15 DECEMBER- One of the last major encounters of the battle was initiated by C 1-12 in an area around My An close to Troung La by the end of the day seven U.S. Companies and 2 ARVN battalions were thrown into the firefight. A request for a Mech unit was granted and A(-) 1/50 was sent in the afternoon.  A soldier from the 1st Cav Div was awarded the Medal of Honor in this encounter.

19 DECEMBER- Again an aerial recon by A Troop 1/9 Cav found an antenna wire leading to a large bunker complex. At 1408 D 2-8 Cav air assaulted into the area and was engaged by an unknown size enemy force. A total of six air strikes were called in and by 1700 Hrs bunker complex was completely destroyed.

DECEMBER 20- Four air strikes and intensive artillery were used to neutralize the contact area before a coordinated attack with D 2-8 C and C 1-50 Mech were to move on line and cross the Bong Son river. Swift tidal currents and steep muddy banks on the Bong Son river prevented C 1-50 Mech from crossing to join the attack. D 2-8 Cav completed the attack with no contact. The Battle of Tam Quan ended at 2400Hrs on the 20th of December 1967. The 2-8 Cav remained in the area digging through the demolished bunkers and fortified positions recovering enemy bodies and weapons.

THE FIRST BATTALION (M) 50TH INFANTRY HAD MET ITS FIRST COMBAT TEST IN A MAJOR BATTLE AND HAD COME OUT SUCCESSFUL AND VICTORIOUS. THE BATTLE OF TAM QUAN TURNED OUT TO BE THE 1/50(M) INFANTRY’S BIGGEST ENGAGEMENT DURING ITS STAY IN VIETNAM.

© Rigo Ordaz, 2002-2005. All Rights reserved.

Operation Cedar Falls:  Search and Destroy in the Iron Triangle

The purpose here is to deprive the Viet Cong of this area for good

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Members of Co B, 2nd Bn, 503rd Abn Inf, 173rd Abn Bge move through Thanh Dien Forest on patrol in the southern section of the “Iron Triangle” during Operation “Cedar Falls.”

At dusk on October 8, 1965, barely 90 days after the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division began arriving in Vietnam, three of its infantry companies trudged out of a heavily forested area. The soldiers mounted trucks to return to their base, eagerly anticipating showers, hot food, and rest after three weeks of chasing the elusive Viet Cong. However, in the gathering darkness, shots suddenly rang out and a desperate and chaotic firefight erupted as the startled Americans poured fire at muzzle blasts coming from the dense foliage. Then, as the Viet Cong (VC) shooting gradually diminished, their mortar rounds began falling among the trucks. When it was all over, six men of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry lay dead and 40 more were wounded. At dawn the next day, no VC bodies were found, but there was evidence some had been carried away.

The vicious fight was just 30 miles north of Saigon in an 115-square-mile patch of jungle ominously known as the Iron Triangle.

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The Iron Triangle was so heavily defended, forested and fortified that it would be another 15 months before there were enough U.S. troops in-country to field a force adequate to successfully assault this VC bastion. Operation Cedar Falls, the largest U.S. operation in the war to date, would have a number of significant results. It would validate the effectiveness of a new intelligence methodology; ignite disputes among U.S. military leaders; expose serious weaknesses in South Vietnam’s ability to care for refugees and the need for a better organization for U.S. pacification assistance agencies; and produce fodder for the nascent antiwar movement at home. Most critically, Cedar Falls would demonstrate that General William Westmoreland was not wholly devoted to the “big unit” war, as his detractors claimed. Also—and often overlooked—Cedar Falls directly contributed to the tepid South Vietnamese response to North Vietnam’s call for a “General Uprising” during the Tet Offensive.

At the same time, American military leaders grappled with how to deal with the Iron Triangle, a serious argument over North Vietnamese strategy roiled Hanoi. General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), had been convinced in late 1965 that his troops could not sustain the large losses they were suffering in the South against superior U.S. firepower and mobility. Through 1966, Giap pressed for a reversion to guerrilla warfare methods instead of continuing the main force struggle between his regulars and allied forces. Giap lost the argument to Hanoi’s commander in the South, General Nguyen Chi Than, who not only favored the big-unit war but also believed Southerners would join in a revolt against the Americans and their puppets in Saigon. In April 1967, Hanoi secretly directed preparations for an all-out offensive and general uprising in the South.

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A member of “A” Co., 1/26th, 1st Bde, 1st Inf Div crouches near a tree while waiting for the area ahead to be cleared of mines, during Operation Cedar Falls in the Iron Triangle. (National Archives)

Operation Cedar Falls, named for the hometown of 1st Division Medal of Honor recipient Robert John Hibbs, who had been killed in March 1966, would involve a massive sweep of the Triangle by two brigades of DePuy’s division, plus an airborne brigade, elements of a cavalry regiment and an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Ranger battalion.

Meanwhile, Weyand, employing two brigades, would sweep through wooded areas west of the Saigon River and block any enemy escape attempt to avoid DePuy’s assault. Units on the sweeps were given a “VC Installations List” detailing the location, unit or office designations of all facilities, depots, communications centers and expected positions of three local force VC battalions and two separate companies. No enemy main force units were expected to be in the Iron Triangle. All of the estimated 6,000 inhabitants of the Triangle’s one village and several outlying hamlets would be assembled, screened and relocated. The plan called for the destruction of all enemy installations within a two-week period, after which the Triangle would be publicly designated a free-fire zone—where any inhabitant would be considered hostile.

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Ben Suc, the Triangle’s main village of about 3,500 people, already had a martial history and unfortunate experience with political coercion. A sprawling collection of houses, rice paddies, orchards and shops, Ben Suc had been fortified as far back as the late 18th century when it was the base for operations against rebellious northern tribes. The village had been the site of an ARVN outpost until the Viet Cong overran it in 1964, executed the village chief, blocked the roads and organized the population into youth, women and farmers associations and indoctrinated them on National Liberation Front (NLF) goals and laws.

The villagers were told the Americans were evil, that they killed pregnant women and ate their victims. They were required to pay taxes in rice and other foodstuffs or money, supply recruits for VC units, transport supplies and clear battlefields of the dead. The civilians also supplied the labor to dig fighting trenches and bunkers for combat units and tunnels to shelter political, medical, communication and other such stationary facilities. The ARVN had attempted to recover Ben Suc before, but it and the Iron Triangle had been in VC hands for about two years.

At the direction of General Seaman, who believed VC agents had penetrated several ARVN headquarters, Cedar Falls was held in strict secrecy—even from some of the participating ARVN allies—until the day before its January 8 launch. On January 7, six newsmen were given a briefing on Cedar Falls, including 24-year-old Jonathan Schell of the New Yorker, who recorded the briefing by Major Allen C. Dixon. Pointing to a map, the major began: “We have two targets, actually. There’s the Iron Triangle, and then there’s the village of Ben Suc.” Dixon called the village a “solid VC” political center. “We know there’s important VC infrastructure there,” he said. “What we’re really after is the infrastructure. We’ve run several operations in this area before with ARVN but it’s always been hit and run. You go in there, leave the same day and the VC are back that night. This time we’re really going to do a thorough job of it; we’re going to clean out the place completely. The people are all going to be resettled in a temporary camp near Phu Cuong, the provincial capital down the river, and then we’re going to move everything out—livestock, furniture and all of their possessions. The purpose here is to deprive the VC of this area for good.”

Dixon told the reporters that 500 1st Division troops would land in 60 helicopters around Ben Suc at 0800, to avoid mines and booby traps that were on the village’s approaches. A helicopter with loudspeakers would instruct villagers to assemble at the village center and inform them that anyone attempting escape would be considered Viet Cong. Safe conduct pass leaflets would be dropped for any VC desiring to defect. Dixon said the villagers would be evacuated and cared for by incoming ARVN units—which would be briefed on their role shortly before they were brought to the Triangle.

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The next morning, January 8, reporter Schell joined troops of the 1st Division’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Haig at Dau Tieng, 11 miles north of Ben Suc. They flew due south at 2,500 feet, within sight of the village but on a path that appeared well to the west of Ben Suc. Gradually losing altitude, the 60 helicopters disappeared from the village’s view, and then turned toward it at treetop level, roaring forward at 100 mph. Flaring out at precisely 0800, the helicopters drifted down on three landing zones around Ben Suc. Their surprise was complete and the village was quickly surrounded. Sporadic firing faded away.

After the helicopters left to pick up more troops, a single Huey circled above, giving instructions to the inhabitants through a loudspeaker. Well to the north, U.S. artillery fire began hitting designated landing zones in preparation for helicopter-borne assaults into the nearby wood. Within an hour, as they had been ordered to do, about 1,000 villagers had gathered at Ben Suc’s school. South Vietnamese police and ARVN troops then arrived to screen the villagers and cull males between 15 and 45. A 1st Division field kitchen was set up and a medical tent was erected so U.S. medics could offer treatment to the waiting inhabitants. A detailed search of the villagers’ homes by ARVN soldiers began. By midafternoon, some 3,500 dejected and unfriendly villagers had been assembled. It was looking like Cedar Falls might be a textbook piece of allied military precision.

sgt-_ronald_h-_payne_tunnel_rat_vietnam_war_1967“Tunnel Rat” preparing to enter a tunnel complex

That’s when things soured. While New Yorker reporter Schell was observing the operation around Ben Suc, he came on an ugly scene of ARVN officers interrogating some young males. The suspects, who failed to answer questions to the officers’ satisfaction, were repeatedly beaten—all this, Schell wrote, under the eyes of “a very fat American with a red face and an expression of perfect boredom.” When a U.S. Army captain arrived on the scene, he took Schell aside and said, “You see, they do have some, well, methods and practices that we are not accustomed to, that we wouldn’t use…but the thing you’ve got to understand is that this is an Asian country, and their first impulse is force.”

14 Jan 1967, Ben Suc, South Vietnam --- Vietnamese Refugees Getting Ready for Relocation --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
14 Jan 1967, Ben Suc, South Vietnam — Vietnamese Refugees Getting Ready for Relocation — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soon, the evacuation plan for the families quickly unraveled. While Seaman’s secretive planning yielded a thoroughly surprised enemy, it also produced distrust between the allies, an agonizing delay in the operation, and perhaps worse. All of the military-age males were flown to Phu Cuong for interrogation in the afternoon, but the unexpected and hasty effort to round up enough ARVN landing craft to transport the families, their animals and possessions on the Saigon River from Ben Suc to Phu Cuong broke down. South Vietnamese authorities, angry with their pushy, inconsiderate American allies, simply had not had the time to identify, plan, assemble and supervise a flotilla, resulting in a two-day delay. On January 10, General DePuy, disgusted and impatient with the handling of the refugees, took charge. He organized truck convoys to transport some families to the provincial capital and ordered the landing craft be used to bring the rest of the villagers and the farmers’ water buffalos.

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Meanwhile, searching and fighting was progressing in the woods surrounding Ben Suc. Since landing, 1st Division troops had discovered several tunnel complexes and stores of foodstuffs, ammunition and other supplies. Some of the surprised Viet Cong fought back, and early fighting left 40 dead, while the Americans were initially free of battle deaths. The biggest fight of the entire operation took place across the river in the 25th Division area when a 2nd Brigade unit made an unexpected, sharp contact with a battalion-size enemy force during an air assault. This bloody action continued for most of the day with men of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry breaking up the enemy battalion and chasing down groups of its survivors. In this hot, deadly fight, six Americans died, while the VC left 100 bodies of their outgunned battalion on the field.

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As the sweep of the Triangle continued for two weeks, many smaller actions took place, but the main role of U.S. forces became locating, searching and destroying hundreds of tunnels. The GIs soon learned how to spot a tunnel entrance, entice any enemy out of it, and then send a pistol-armed volunteer, or “tunnel rat,” inside with flashlight, compass and field phone, to explore and retrieve documents, weapons, and ammunition. The tunnel would then be destroyed by explosives or by pumping acetylene gas into the passageways and igniting it.

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A notable exception to the largely passive response to the U.S. sweep of the Triangle came when the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, entered the woods just northeast of Ben Suc, looking for a previously identified VC installation. The facility was a camouflaged medical supply depot with a tunnel being used as a hospital, where Dr. Vo Hoang Le, his wife and several assistants were tending to 60 patients. Alerted by the Ben Suc attack, Dr. Le decided to ignore instructions to flee or hide from the Americans and opted to arm his staff, prepare concealed firing positions and defend his hospital with four rifles, a Thompson submachine gun and his own .45-cal. revolver.

The next day, at 1230, Dr. Le saw three American soldiers approaching. When they were within 20 feet, he began firing, killing all three. Le’s wife scurried through a blizzard of American bullets to the American bodies and returned with their M-16s and some ammunition. Spotting a GI crawling forward to retrieve one of the bodies, Le killed him. The Americans called in artillery and an airstrike with napalm. In the afternoon, the Americans launched three attacks, each pushed back by Le and the defenders. The doctor later recalled: “That night, I raised the question of withdrawing. Some of my comrades were against the idea….I told them if we stayed, we would not be able to withstand the next day’s assault….We left six of the wounded behind in secret tunnels; they had lost legs or had head wounds and could not walk. Two nurses stayed to look after them….We went through the shell fire….Two men were wounded during the journey, but none were killed.”

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On January 11, an argument about the treatment of the refugees arose among U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders. It involved General DePuy and the head of the regional U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) office, John Paul Vann. An ex-U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Vann was a courageous, intelligent 43-year-old former Ranger who had been an adviser in Vietnam in 1962-63, and had keen insights into Vietnamese culture. The dispute began with DePuy’s quick inspection of the Phu Cuong reception camp and his outrage at the lack of adequate organization, sanitation, shelter, food and medical services for the refugees. DePuy complained about the abysmal conditions to General Seaman and suggested that he take charge of the camp, as he’d taken charge of the evacuation. Seaman reaffirmed his desire to have the Vietnamese take care of their own people with Vann’s assistance in supplying resources. Vann phoned DePuy to see if he could relieve the general’s concerns and got an angry response: “Vann, your lousy organization has fallen flat on its face and I am going to move in and do the job—as usual!” Vann countered that the Vietnamese authorities were responsible for the camp’s shortcomings and the reason behind that stemmed from their belief that the refugees had no loyalty to the Saigon government.

Within a few days, the refugees’ plight was somewhat eased with the arrival of tents, clothing, food and water and sanitary facilities—much of it coming from the 1st Division. Five months later, under Vann’s hand, the refugees were living in concrete block buildings with metal roofs, fairly well supplied and maintaining the same standard of living as the dependents of ARVN soldiers. However, no one involved in the evacuation dispute was truly satisfied—least of all, the refugees themselves.

Up in the Triangle and the 25th Division’s search area, the destruction of Military Region IV facilities continued until January 26, when Operation Cedar Falls ended. Vietnamese paratroopers assumed the search of Ben Suc and made the most stunning find yet. The VC had taken advantage of the allied proclivity to avoid hitting villages with artillery and airstrikes, and had dug a vast, three-story-deep complex of tunnels and chambers covering several acres underneath the village. There were offices, medical facilities, storage bins and spaces for the manufacture of clothing, munitions and footwear, even special defense capabilities—tunnels leading to surface observation and firing positions.

Elsewhere, other facilities were found, including several underground VC provincial and district government headquarters. MR4’s signal and cryptographic center was located, along with files and codebooks. Its intelligence section contained a trove of documents, including more than 200 personal history sheets on cadre and a notebook of names of ARVN officers who were supplying the VC with information and U.S. ammunition. The postal, communications and transportation section was found with extensive records, and an operations office was also identified, yielding campaign plans and maps. A number of camouflaged, aboveground rice storage facilities were also found, shielding hundreds of tons of bagged rice.

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The results of Operation Cedar Falls were impressive, as more than four square miles of jungle had been cleared. The allies had captured 578 weapons and 3,700 tons of rice—enough to feed five regiments for a year. Eleven hundred bunkers, 424 tunnels, and 509 structures were destroyed. The effectiveness of pattern activity analysis had been confirmed. Viet Cong losses included 723 killed and 213 taken prisoner, among them 12 high-ranking officials and MR4’s talkative operations officer, who was caught trying to spirit away two pounds of documents and maps. More than 500 enemy personnel defected and some 500,000 pages of documents were seized. Within a few days, police and ARVN counterintelligence authorities began picking up enemy agents and traitors and breaking up underground networks throughout the region and in Saigon. Almost immediately, incidences of assassination, sabotage and guerrilla actions in the region dramatically dropped. The cost included 72 American and ARVN battle deaths.

Some Viet Cong did return to the Iron Triangle after the operation, but keeping them out would have required a defending force of considerable size, which the allies believed to be an unwise use of scarce soldiers. The Viet Cong who did return found life in a free-fire zone perilous and challenging without villagers to supply labor, recruits, and food.

Cedar Falls yielded two positive results that leaders could not have envisioned when they planned the operation. The evacuation and settlement of the Triangle’s refugees were so flawed that the Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) organization was created three months later. An ambassadorial-level civilian, reporting to the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, led the organization. This integrated military-civilian structure proved superior and gave Westmoreland the authority to direct U.S. pacification support along with military advisory and combat operations.

The other unanticipated achievement was the massive collection of documents that led to the arrests of key Viet Cong agents and officials in Saigon and its environs. Although unknown to the American planners of Cedar Falls, the subsequent weakening of the National Liberation Front infrastructure in the Saigon region would diminish the chances for success of the General Uprising then being secretly planned by COSVN.

Later, in confidential documents that circulated among Communist leaders, the Viet Cong admitted that Operation Cedar Falls had, for them, been a great disaster.

Rod Paschall, editor-at-large for MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, was a Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964 and returned to Vietnam in 1966 as a company commander and staff officer until 1968. He finished his Southeast Asian service in Cambodia in 1974-75.

Operation Dewey Canyon

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Operation Dewey Canyon was the last major offensive by the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It took place from January 22 through March 18, 1969 and involved a sweep of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)-dominated A Shau and Song Đa Krông Valleys by the 9th Marine Regiment. Based on intelligence and captured documents, the NVA unit in contact was believed to be the 9th NVA Regiment. The 56 days of combat were a tactical success but did not stop the overall flow of North Vietnamese men and matériel into South Vietnam. The 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation for their actions in Operation Dewey Canyon.

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Throughout 1967 and into 1968, the United States Marine Corps units in the northern I Corps region had been tied to their combat bases along the South Vietnam border as part of the McNamara Line. This “line” was a combination of infantry units and ground sensors devised to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When Lt. Gen. Raymond G. Davis took command of the 3rd Marine Division, he ordered Marine units to move out of their combat bases and engage the enemy. He had noted that the manning of the bases and the defensive posture they developed was contrary to the aggressive style of fighting that Marines favor.

In early 1969, intelligence reports indicated there had been a large PAVN build-up in the A Shau and Đa Krông Valleys. The A Shau was just 10 km east of the Laotian border and some 34 km long, while the Đa Krông was several kilometers further east and separated by two mountain ranges.

The operation, named Operation Dawson River South was to comprise 3 distinct phases: first was the southern movement of the 9th Marines and supporting units into mutually supporting firebases near the objective area, second was a period of intensive patrolling around the firebases and then finally the Regiment would attack into the PAVN base areas. The Marine operation would be coordinated with supporting actions by the 101st Airborne Division and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Regiment east of the operations area.

Phase 1

On 18 January the 3rd Battalion 9th Marines was lifted from Vandegrift Combat Base to reoccupy Firebase Henderson. On 20 January Company L, 3/9 Marines reoccupied Firebase Tun Tavern and on the 21st Company A, 1st Battalion 9th Marines reoccupied Firebase Shiloh.

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On 22 January the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines was lifted from Vandegrift to establish two new firebases further south: Dallas and Razor. On 24 January the 9th Marines command post was moved from Vandegrift to Razor.

On 25 January 3/9 Marines established Firebase Cunningham 6 km southeast of Razor and over the following four days the 9th Marines command post and five artillery batteries from 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines moved to Cunningham.

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 UH-1Es at Fire Base Cunningham during Operation Dewey Canyon

Phase 2

The Operation was renamed Operation Dewey Canyon and on 24/5 January Companies from 2/9 and 3/9 Marines began patrolling south from Razor and Cunningham discovering the PAVN 88th Field Hospital which had been abandoned the previous day.

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DEFENSE DEPT PHOTO (MARINE CORPS) A192682

On 31 January after a brief firefight with PAVN forces Company G secured Hill 1175, while Company F established Firebase Erskine.  On 1 February Company K established Firebase Lightning which was occupied by the ARVN 1st and 2nd Battalions, 2nd Regiment.

On 2 February Firebase Cunningham was hit by 30-40 rounds of PAVN 122mm artillery fire from Laos resulting in 5 Marines killed.

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With bad weather limiting patrolling and resupply, the Marine infantry was withdrawn to their bases. On 5 February as Company G withdrew from Hill 1175 they were ambushed resulting in 5 Marines killed and 18 wounded, while only 2 PAVN bodies were found. LCpl. Thomas Noonan, Jr. would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the engagement.

On 10 February, Company H, 2/9 Marines captured a large cache of ammunition, weapons, and equipment while on patrol five kilometers northwest of FSB Cunningham.  The haul of ammunition included 363 RPG rounds and 120 rounds of 60mm mortar ammunition.

Phase 3 and the raid into Laos

The third phase commenced on 11 February 1969. 1/9 Marines engaged a PAVN force preparing to attack Firebase Erskine and killed 25 PAVN. Company M repulsed a PAVN platoon killing 18 for the loss of 2 Marines, while Company C killed 24 PAVN for the loss of 2 Marines. On 16 February Company K, 3/9 Marines killed 17 PAVN.  On the 17th Company Co. G 2/9 Marines killed 39 PAVN for the loss of 5 Marines.

On the early morning of 17 February, PAVN sappers attacked Firebase Cunningham resulting in 4 Marines and 37 PAVN killed.

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On 18 February Company A, 1/9 Marines encountered a PAVN bunker system which they overran killing 30 PAVN. The following morning Company C continued the attack against nearby PAVN positions killing a further 30 PAVN with total Marine losses of 1 killed. On the afternoon of the 20th Company C encountered another PAVN bunker system killing 71 PAVN and capturing 2 122mm field guns. Company A continued the attack killing a further 17 PAVN, total Marine losses were 6 dead.

Also on 18 February, Company L 3/9 Marines discovered a PAVN cemetery containing 185 bodies buried in June 1968.

As the Marines approached the Laotian border and in response to the artillery attack on Cunningham, Major General Davis had sent requests up the chain of command to get permission to enter Laos. This led to a redirection of MACV-SOG’s Operation Prairie Fire to conduct reconnaissance near Base Area 611 in Laos. On February 20, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell forwarded Davis’ request to have a limited raid into Base Area 611 up to COMUSMACV General Abrams for his approval.

By 20 February, 2/9 Marines had both Companies E and H on the Laotian border. From their position, Company H could see enemy convoys traveling along Route 922. Company H Commanding Officer David F. Winecoff later reported:

“The company, of course, was talking about let’s get down on the road and do some ambushing. I don’t think they really thought that they were going to let us go over into Laos … I knew if the military had their way we’d be over there in Laos and the company was all up for it…. With the Paris Peace Talks going on, I wasn’t sure what route was going to be taken.”

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On 21 February, Captain Winecoff received a message from Colonel Barrow, 9th Marines Commanding Officer, to set up an ambush along Route 922. The Captain’s men needed rest, and he requested a postponement but was denied by Colonel Barrow. The Captain utilized his 1st and 2nd Platoons, and at 16:10, 1st Platoon moved out and made its way to 2nd Platoon’s position. At 18:30, Winecoff briefed his men on the ambush. After dark, they moved out towards route 922, about 900 meters away. By 01:00, Captain Winecoff and Hotel Company were in place and setting up the ambush.  Within minutes of getting into position they started hearing trucks coming down the road and continued to observe as 40 minutes later, a lone truck and one PAVN soldier also walked through the kill zone. Winecoff had not wanted the ambush sprung on one truck or soldier, realizing that eventually, a bigger target would come down the road. At 02:30, the lights of eight trucks appeared, and as three trucks came into the kill zone the column of vehicles stopped. Not wanting to give away the ambush or their position Winecoff, set off the claymores and the ambush. The Marines poured small arms and automatic weapons fire on the three vehicles, the forward observer alerted the artillery, and rounds bracketed the company position.

After minutes of fire, Captain Winecoff had his men moved forward, ensuring that everything was destroyed. The company proceeded to move out to the rally point 600 meters away and waited till daylight. Later, it rejoined with 3rd Platoon who had not been involved with the ambush because of the heavy patrols it had been involved with in the previous days. H Company was resupplied and the men rested. They had destroyed three trucks and killed eight PAVN soldiers. Hotel Company did not suffer any casualties.

Landscape

 A wounded Marine is helped to an evacuation point

After Action Reports of the patrol were met with positive reviews, General Abrams formally approved the operation. The success of the operation was more valuable than just the destruction of the enemy because it allowed Colonel Barrow to request that continued operations in Laos be approved. His reasoning for continued operations was the presence of the enemy in the area was a threat to his troops. Barrow noted, “I put a final comment on my message, which said, quote, “Put another way, my forces should not be here if ground interdiction of Route 922 not authorized.” The message finally reached General Abrams via General Stilwell, who had adopted the Colonel’s recommendation. General Abrams approved further action on February 24 but restricted discussions of the Laotian operation.

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Also on 21 February, Company M 3/9 Marines discovered a PAVN maintenance facility including a bulldozer and on further searching around Hill 1228 discovered 2 122mm field guns and a large tunnel complex inside the mountain.

On 22 February, Company A 1/9 Marines overran a PAVN position eight kilometers southeast of FSB Erskine killing 7 PAVN for the loss of 1 Marine. As Company A continued patrolling they encountered and overran an entrenched PAVN Company killing 105 PAVN for the loss of 11 Marines. Captured documents indicated the unit in contact was the 3rd Battalion, 9th NVA Regiment (also known as the K.16 NVA Battalion).   The Company A commander 1Lt Wesley L. Fox would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle.

Company H was ordered to go down Route 922 on February 24. Morale was low because the Marines were tired after several days of patrolling. Additionally, they did not want to leave the resupplies that included 60 mm mortar ammunition and C-rations.  Hotel Company was to move into Laos followed by Companies E and F and push eastward on the road, forcing the enemy into the hands of the 1st and 3d Battalions. After a six-hour night march, Hotel set up a hasty ambush; at 11:00 on 24 February, six PAVN soldiers walked into their kill zone, of which four were killed. On February 25, Hotel Company continued to move eastward again engaging NVA, resulting in the capture of one 122 mm field gun, two 40mm antiaircraft guns and the killing of eight PAVN soldiers. Company H suffered two dead and seven wounded. Later that day a company patrol was ambushed by an estimated 15 NVA troops who were dug in fortified bunkers and fighting holes. The patrol was reinforced and was able to fight its way through, capturing a second 122 mm gun and killing two. Casualties were mounting for Hotel Company: three killed and five wounded. Corporal William D. Morgan was one of the men killed in action when he made a daring dash and directed fire away from Private First Class Robinson Santiago and Private Robert Ballou. Robert Ballou was wounded multiple times that day and Robinson Santiago was killed-in-action. Corporal Morgan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.

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Company H, flanked by Companies E and F, continued their drive east, which was rapid and did not allow for the Companies to conduct thorough searches. Advancing much slower would have garnered much more equipment. However, 2nd Battalion did capture 20 tons of foodstuffs and ammunition, while killing 48 PAVN soldiers. On 26 February, Company F, 2/9 Marines discovered a large cache nine kilometers south of FSB Erskine which included 198 rounds of 122mm artillery ammunition and 1,500 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition for anti-aircraft guns.

The three companies were within 1,000 meters of the South Vietnamese border by March 1 and were flown by helicopter to Vandegrift Combat Base on March 3, officially ending operations in Laos. 2nd Battalion sustained eight killed and 33 wounded during the operation. For the record, all of the dead were listed as being killed in Quảng Trị Province, South Vietnam and for political reasons, no reference was made about being in Laos.  On 27 February Company D discovered a large PAVN weapons cache near Hill 1044 that included 629 rifles and over 100 crew-served weapons.

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With the Marine objectives achieved by early March the operations plan called for the phased withdrawal of the Marines from the operational area, however, this was hampered by bad weather. As 3/9 Marines withdrew to Firebase Cunningham on 3 March they were ambushed by a PAVN force and PFC Alfred M. Wilson would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the firefight. The operation concluded at 20:00 on 18 March as the last Marines arrived back at Vandegrift.

Marine losses were 130 killed in action and 932 wounded, in return, the Marines reported 1,617 PAVN killed, the discovery of 500 tons of arms and munitions, and denial of the valley as a PAVN staging area for the duration of the operation.

Notable decorations and awards during the operation were:

  • First Lt. Archie “Joe” Biggers, Platoon Leader 9th Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps, who led the platoon that captured the two 122 mm guns, was wounded in action during the operation and was awarded a Silver Star.
  • The 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation.

In 1971, the operation to clear Highway 9 from Đông Hà Combat Base to the Laotian border was named Operation Dewey Canyon II in an attempt to misdirect enemy attention towards the A Shau Valley instead of Tchepone, the actual objective of the combined campaign.

The Cambodian Campaign

The Cambodian Campaign (also known as the Cambodian Incursion and the Cambodian Invasion) was a series of military operations conducted in eastern Cambodia during 1970 by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)(NRA) during the Vietnam War. These invasions were a result of the policy of President Richard Nixon. A total of 13 major operations were conducted by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) between 29 April and 22 July and by US forces between 1 May and 30 June.

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The objective of the campaign was the defeat of the approximately 40,000 troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, also known as Viet Cong) who were ensconced in the eastern border regions of Cambodia. Cambodia’s official neutrality and military weakness made its territory effectively a safe zone where Vietnamese communist forces could establish bases for operations over the border. With the US shifting toward a policy of Vietnamization and withdrawal, the US sought to shore up the South Vietnamese government’s security by eliminating the cross-border threat.

The new commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), General Creighton W. Abrams, recommended to President Richard M. Nixon shortly after his inauguration that the Cambodian Base Areas be attacked by aerial bombardment utilizing B-52 Stratofortress bombers.  The president initially refused, but the breaking point came with the launching of PAVN’s “Mini-Tet” Offensive of 1969 within South Vietnam. Nixon, angered at what he perceived as a violation of the “agreement” with Hanoi after the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, authorized the covert air campaign.   The first mission of Operation Menu was dispatched on 18 March and by the time it was completed 14 months later more than 3,000 sorties had been flown and 108,000 tons of ordnance had been dropped on eastern Cambodia.

Map showing the army bases along the Vietnamese Cambodian border

 Map showing the headquarter complexes along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border
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During a televised address on 20 April, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 150,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam during the year. This planned withdrawal implied restrictions on any offensive U.S. action in Cambodia. By the spring of 1970, MACV still maintained 330,648 U.S. Army and 55,039 Marine Corps troops in South Vietnam, most of whom were concentrated in 81 infantry and tank battalions.  Many of them, however, were preparing to leave the country or expected to leave in the near future and would not be available for immediate combat operations.

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South Vietnamese forces had been rehearsing for just such an operation since late March. On 27 April, an ARVN Ranger Battalion had advanced into Kandal Province to destroy a communist base. Four days later other South Vietnamese troops drove 16 kilometers into Cambodian territory. Lon Nol, who had initially attempted to follow a neutralist policy of his own, requested military aid and assistance from the U.S. government on 14 April.  On that day, South Vietnamese forces then conducted the first of three brief cross-border operations under the aegis of Operation Toan Thang (Complete Victory) 41, sending armored cavalry units into regions of Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province nicknamed, “the Angels Wing” and “the Crow’s Nest”. On 20 April, 2,000 South Vietnamese troops advanced into the Parrot’s Beak, killing 144 PAVN troops. On 22 April, Nixon authorized American air support for the South Vietnamese operations. All of these incursions into Cambodian territory were simply reconnaissance missions in preparation for a large-scale effort being planned by MACV and its ARVN counterparts, subject to authorization by Nixon.

Not all of the members of the administration agreed that an invasion of Cambodia was either militarily or politically expedient. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird and Secretary Rogers were both opposed to any such operation due to their belief that it would engender intense domestic opposition in the U.S. and that it might possibly derail the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris (they had both opposed the Menu bombings for the same reasons). Both were castigated by Henry Kissinger for their “bureaucratic foot-dragging.” As a result, Laird was bypassed by the Joint Chiefs in advising the White House on planning and preparations for the Cambodian operation.

 On 30 April 1970, President Nixon announced the attack into Cambodia. In a televised address to the nation, he justified it as a necessary response to North Vietnamese aggression
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On the evening of 25 April Nixon dined with his friend Bebe Rebozo and Kissinger. Afterward, they screened one of Nixon’s favorite movies, Patton, a biographical portrayal of controversial General George S. Patton, Jr., which he had seen five times previously. Kissinger later commented that “When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon’s] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton.”

The following evening, Nixon decided that “We would go for broke” and gave his authorization for the incursion.  The joint U.S./ARVN campaign would begin on 1 May with the stated goals of reducing allied casualties in South Vietnam; assuring the continued withdrawal of U.S. forces; and enhancing the U.S./Saigon government position at the peace negotiations in Paris.

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In order to keep the campaign as low-key as possible, General Abrams had suggested that the commencement of the incursion be routinely announced from Saigon. At 21:00 on 30 April, however, President Nixon appeared on all three U.S. television networks to announce that “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight” and that “the time has come for action.” He announced his decision to launch American forces into Cambodia with the special objective of capturing COSVN,”the headquarters of the entire communist military operation in South Vietnam.”  COSVN as a single headquarters for control of PAVN operations in South Vietnam probably did not exist, or, at least, was never found.

Years later Trương would recall just how “close [South Vietnamese] were to annihilating or capturing the core of the Southern resistance – elite units of our frontline fighters along with the civilian and much of the military leadership”. After many days of hard marches, the PRG reached the northern bases, and relative safety, in the Kratie region. Casualties were light and the march even saw the birth of a baby to Dương Quỳnh Hoa, the deputy minister of health in the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). The column needed many days to recover and Trương himself would require weeks to recover from the long march.

ARVN’s M113 APC on a road in Cambodia


11th ACR’s M551 Sheridan and mine-clearing team on a road in Cambodia

South Vietnamese forces had already crossed the border on 30 April, launching Operation Toan Thang 42. 12 ARVN battalions of approximately 8,700 troops (two armored cavalry squadrons from III Corps and two from the 25th Division and 5th Infantry Divisions, an infantry regiment from the 25th Infantry Division, and three Ranger battalions and an attached ARVN Armored Cavalry Regt from the 3rd Ranger Group) crossed into the Parrot’s Beak region of Svay Rieng Province. The offensive was under the command of Lieutenant General Đỗ Cao Trí, the commander of III Corps, who had a reputation as one of the most aggressive and competent ARVN generals. During their first two days in Cambodia, ARVN units had several sharp encounters with PAVN forces. The North Vietnamese, forewarned by previous ARVN incursions, however, conducted only delaying actions in order to allow the bulk of their forces to escape to the west.

The ARVN operation soon settled down to become a search and destroy mission, with South Vietnamese troops combing the countryside in small patrols looking for PAVN supply caches. Phase II of the operation began with the arrival of elements of the 9th Infantry Division. Four tank-infantry task forces attacked into the Parrot’s Beak from the south. After three days of operations, ARVN claimed 1,010 PAVN troops had been killed and 204 prisoners taken for the loss of 66 ARVN dead and 330 wounded.

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On 1 May an even larger operation, known by the ARVN as Operation Toan Thang 43 and by MACV as Operation Rockcrusher, got underway as 36 B-52s dropped 774 tons of bombs along the southern edge of the Fishhook. This was followed by an hour of massed artillery fire and another hour of strikes by tactical fighter-bombers. At 10:00, the 1st Air Cav Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 1st ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade then entered Kampong Cham Province of Cambodia. Known as Task Force Shoemaker (after General Robert M. Shoemaker, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division), the force attacked the long-time communist stronghold with 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops. The operation utilized mechanized infantry and armored units to drive deep into the province where they would then link up with ARVN airborne and U.S. airmobile units that had been lifted in by helicopter.

Opposition to the incursion was expected to be heavy, but PAVN/NLF forces had begun moving westward two days before the advance began. By 3 May, MACV reported only eight Americans killed and 32 wounded, low casualties for such a large operation. There was only scattered and sporadic contact with delaying forces such as that experienced by elements of the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry three kilometers inside Cambodia. PAVN troops opened fire with small arms and rockets only to be blasted by tank fire and tactical airstrikes. When the smoke had cleared, 50 dead PAVN soldiers were counted on the battlefield while only two U.S. troops were killed during the action.

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1st Battalion/7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division was in the Fishhook very early May through 30 June when they crossed the river back into Vietnam. There was extremely heavy combat throughout the period. American losses were very heavy, with all units relying on a heavy inflow of replacements to try to maintain at least half strength in the field. In one company, of all the men who had entered Cambodia, only nine left on 30 June, the rest having been either killed or wounded and evacuated. The unit was awarded the Valorous Unit Award, equivalent to individual Silver Stars, for their combat performance in the Fishhook.

The North Vietnamese had ample notice of the impending attack. A 17 March directive from the headquarters of the B-3 Front, captured during the incursion, ordered PAVN/NLF forces to “break away and avoid shooting back…Our purpose is to conserve forces as much as we can”.   The only party surprised amongst the participants in the incursion seemed to be Lon Nol, who had been informed by neither Washington nor Saigon concerning the impending invasion of his country. He only discovered the fact after a telephone conversation with the head of the U.S. mission, who had found out about it himself from a radio broadcast.

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On the following day, elements of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry division entered what came to be known as “The City”, southwest of Snoul. The two-square-mile PAVN complex contained over 400 thatched huts, storage sheds, and bunkers, each of which was packed with food, weapons, and ammunition. There were truck repair facilities, hospitals, a lumber yard, 18 mess halls, a pig farm, and even a swimming pool.   Forty kilometers to the northeast, other 1st Cavalry Division elements discovered a larger base on 6 May. Nicknamed “Rock Island East” after the U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the area contained more than 6.5 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 500,000 rifle rounds, thousands of rockets, several General Motors trucks, and large quantities of communications equipment.

 The 2d Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, enters Snoul, Cambodia on 4 May
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While on patrol 20 kilometers northeast of “Rock Island East” on 23 May, a point man nicknamed Shakey (Chris Keffalos)  from the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, tripped over a metal plate buried just below the surface of the ground. The trooper was later killed by PAVN defenders, but the cache he had uncovered was the first of 59 buried storage bunkers at the site of what was thereafter known as “Shakey’s Hill”. The bunkers contained thousands of cases of weapons and ammunition, all of which were turned over to the Cambodian army. Much of the captured enemy material was turned over to the MACV Special Support Group for Cambodia where it was maintained and then issued to Lon Nol’s Forces. This group was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Will H. Horn.

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After the first week of operations, additional battalion and brigade units were committed to the operation, so that between 6 and 24 May, a total of 90,000 Allied troops (including 33 U.S. maneuver battalions) were conducting operations inside Cambodia.   Due to increasing political and domestic turbulence in the U.S., President Nixon issued a directive on 7 May limiting the distance and duration of U.S. operations to a depth of 30 kilometers (19 mi) and setting a deadline of 30 June for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces to South Vietnam.

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In the II Corps area, Operation Binh Tay I (Operation Tame the West) was launched by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 40th ARVN Infantry Regiment against Base Area 702 (the traditional headquarters of the communist B-2 Front) in northeastern Cambodia from 5–25 May. Following airstrikes, the initial American forces, assaulting via helicopter, were driven back by the intense anti-aircraft fire. On the following day, the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (on loan from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division), landed without opposition. Its sister unit, the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry was also unopposed. The 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry, however, inserted only 60 men before the intense PAVN fire (which shot down one helicopter and damaged two others) shut down the landing zone, leaving them stranded and surrounded overnight.  By the following morning, PAVN forces had left the area.

On the 7th, the division’s 2nd Brigade inserted its three battalions unopposed. After ten days (and only one significant firefight) the American troops returned to South Vietnam, leaving the area to the ARVN.  Historian Shelby Stanton has noted that “there was a noted lack of aggressiveness” in the combat assault and that the division seemed to be “suffering from almost total combat paralysis.”   During Operation Binh Tay II, the ARVN 22nd Division moved against Base Area 702 from 14–26 May. The second phase of the operation was carried out by ARVN forces against Base Area 701 between 20 May and 27 June when elements of the ARVN 22nd Division conducted operations against Base Area 740.

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On 10 May, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was ambushed by a much larger North Vietnamese force in the Se San Valley. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 28 wounded. Among the killed was Spc. Leslie Sabo, Jr. (posthumously promoted to sergeant), who was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork went missing until 1999.   Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor on 16 May 2012 by President Barack Obama.

In the III Corps Tactical Zone, Operation Toan Thang 44 (Operation Bold Lancer), was conducted by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division between 6 May and 30 June. The targets of the operation were Base Areas 353, 354, and 707 located north and northeast of Tay Ninh, South Vietnam. Once again, a hunt for COSVN units was conducted, this time around the Cambodian town of Memot and, once again, the search was futile. During its operations, the 25th Infantry killed 1,017 PAVN and NLF troops while losing 119 of its own men killed.

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News from two fronts: U.S. soldier follows the news while in Cambodia
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Simultaneous with the launching of Toan Thang 44, the two battalions of the 3rd Brigade, U.S. 9th Infantry Division, crossed the border 48 kilometers southwest of the Fishhook into an area known as the Dog’s Face from 7 through 12 May. The only significant contact with PAVN forces took place near the hamlet of Chantrea, where 51 North Vietnamese were killed and another 21 were captured. During the operation, the brigade lost eight men killed and 22 wounded.  It was already too late for thousands of ethnic Vietnamese murdered by Cambodian persecution, but there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese still within the country who could now be evacuated to safety. South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu arranged with Lon Nol to repatriate as many as were willing to leave. The new relationship did not, however, prevent the Cambodian government from stripping the Vietnamese of their homes and other personal property before they left.

Thieu then authorized Operation Cuu Long, in which ARVN ground forces, including mechanized and armored units, drove west and northwest up the eastern side of the Mekong River from 9 May – 1 July. A combined force of 110 Vietnamese Navy and 30 U.S. vessels proceeded up the Mekong to Prey Veng, permitting IV Corps ground forces to move westward to Phnom Penh and to aid ethnic Vietnamese seeking flight to South Vietnam. Those who did not wish to be repatriated were then forcibly expelled.  Surprisingly, North Vietnamese forces did not oppose the evacuation, though they could easily have done so.

Other operations conducted from IV Corps included Operation Cuu Long II (16–24 May), which continued actions along the western side of the Mekong. Lon Nol had requested that the ARVN help in the retaking of Kompong Speu, a town along Route 4 southwest of Phnom Penh and 90 miles (140 km) inside Cambodia. A 4,000-man ARVN armored task force linked up with Cambodian ground troops and then retook the town. Operation Cuu Long III (24 May – 30 June) was an evolution of the previous operations after U.S. forces had left Cambodia.

After rescuing the Vietnamese from the Cambodians, ARVN was tasked with saving the Cambodians from the North Vietnamese. The goal was to relieve the city of Kompong Cham, 70 kilometers northwest of the capital and the site of the headquarters of Cambodia’s Military Region I. On 23 May, General Tri led a column of 10,000 ARVN troops along Route 7 to the 180-acre (0.73 km2) Chup rubber plantation, where PAVN resistance was expected to be heavy. Surprisingly, no battle ensued and the siege of Kompong Cham was lifted at a cost of 98 PAVN troops killed.

 USAF UH-1Ps over Cambodia.
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 B-52D during a bombing mission over South-east Asia.
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Within two months, however, the limit of the operational area was extended past the Mekong, and U.S. tactical aircraft were soon directly supporting Cambodian forces in the field.  These missions were officially denied by the U.S. and false coordinates were given in official reports to hide their existence.   Defense Department records indicated that out of more than 8,000 combat sorties flown in Cambodia between July 1970 and February 1971, approximately 40 percent were flown outside the authorized Freedom Deal boundary.

The real struggle for the U.S. and ARVN forces in Cambodia was the effort at keeping their units supplied. Once again, the need for security before the operations and the rapidity with which units were transferred to the border regions precluded detailed planning and preparation.   This situation was exacerbated by the poor road network in the border regions and the possibility of ambush for nighttime road convoys demanded that deliveries only take place during daylight.   Aerial resupply, therefore, became the chief method of logistical replenishment for the forward units. Military engineers and aviators were kept in constant motion throughout the incursion zone.

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President Nixon proclaimed the incursion to be “the most successful military operation of the entire war.”   General Abrams was of like mind, believing that time had been bought for the pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside and that U.S. and ARVN forces had been made safe from any attack out of Cambodia during 1971 and 1972. A “decent interval” had been obtained for the final American withdrawal. ARVN General Tran Dinh Tho was more skeptical: “despite its spectacular results…it must be recognized that the Cambodian incursion proved, in the long run, to pose little more than a temporary disruption of North Vietnam’s march toward domination of all of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.”

 Cambodian civilians bag up captured North Vietnamese rice
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The logistical haul discovered, removed, or destroyed in eastern Cambodia during the operations was indeed prodigious: 20,000 individual and 2,500 crew-served weapons; 7,000 to 8,000 tons of rice; 1,800 tons of ammunition (including 143,000 mortar shells, rockets, and recoilless rifle rounds); 29 tons of communications equipment; 431 vehicles; and 55 tons of medical supplies.   MACV intelligence estimated that PAVN/NLF forces in southern Vietnam required 1,222 tons of all supplies each month to keep up a normal pace of operations.  Due to the loss of its Cambodian supply system and continued aerial interdiction in Laos, MACV estimated that for every 2.5 tons of material sent south down the Ho Chi Minh trail, only one ton reached its destination. However, the true loss rate was probably only around ten percent.   General Abrams claimed 11,000 enemy soldiers killed and 2,500 captured, but his figures were disputed by CIA, who insisted that civilians death were figured into Abrams’s total

South Vietnamese losses were 809 killed, 3,486 wounded.  The United States suffered 338 dead, 1,525 wounded and 13 MIA.

Attack on Fire Base Jay

Fire Base Jay was located somewhere between Nui Chua Chan and Vo Dat, about a mile off a wide dirt road and controlled by the 2/7 Cav.

In the early morning hours of March 29, 1971, FB Jay was subjected to an all-out assault by the 93rd NVA Regiment.  Jay had been in position for eleven days, one day less than Illingworth. The NVA pounded Jay with artillery and rockets, then executed a full combat assault with several hundred infantry. The commander at Jay, Lt. Col. Robert Hannas, was gravely wounded, losing both legs to an RPG and a mortar round. His men held, however, but only by a whisker. Fifteen GIs were killed, another 54 wounded.

Jay
Fire Base Jay
From the Left: Margarito Gomez (KIA July 23, 1971),
William Prevost, Anthony Lashley, Larry Griffeth, and Lt. Green
From the Jerry Smith Collection

Jay
Fire Base Jay
A very small crowded fire base . . .
From the Jerry Smith Collection

Jay
Fire Base Jay
. . .With very loud guns.
From the Jerry Smith Collection

BATTLE OF FIREBASE ILLINGWORTH

November 11, 2013 by Latosha Adams and Philip Keith

Michael J. Conrad, West Point Class of ’56, had his first defining hour at a dirty, dusty, outpost in the middle of the jungle, near the Cambodian border on April 1, 1970. It was at a place called Firebase Illingworth. Here is his story:

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The Army’s tactics heretofore had been search-and-destroy, which had required an active hunt for the enemy followed by set piece battles on favorable terrain, when possible. The results had been mixed, mostly due to the NVA’s reluctance to throw themselves wantonly on the superior guns of the Americans. General Casey, who was then on his third tour in Vietnam (and would soon assume command of the entire Division), decided to roll the dice differently. With the concurrence of General Roberts, he gathered his battalion commanders and told them they were going to “bust some serious brush.” He wanted his units to hopscotch across the region, setting up and dismantling fire support bases with alacrity. These flimsy forts would be purposely placed on top of known enemy supply routes or near suspected caches of food and ammunition. They would not be heavily fortified. The idea was to present targets too tempting for the NVA to ignore. It worked. Wherever the 1st Cav placed these minimally manned outposts, the NVA exhibited a distinct inclination to attack them. When the NVA were sufficiently tempted and pounced, massive amounts of offsite artillery (usually at other nearby fire support bases) and TACAIR would be deployed in a concentrated effort to wipe out the attacking NVA force.

It was a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse and although the 1st Cav never lost an outpost, some of the engagements were a very near thing, indeed. Such was the case at Fire Support Base Illingworth on April Fool’s Day, 1970.

Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Mike Conrad was, at the time, commanding officer of the 2nd battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. The 2/8 was Mike’s first major combat command. Between the four line companies assigned, a headquarters company and a recon platoon, Mike commanded about 650 men. During the months of February and March, the battalion had been engaged in a number of very serious firefights and casualties, especially in Charlie Company, had been extremely high. Nonetheless, the tempo had not let up. General Casey was encouraged by the results he was getting from his new strategy and he wanted the battalions under his control to bear down even harder and squeeze tighter.

As the month of March, 1970 drew to a close, Conrad’s Charlie Company, reduced to 85 men, was sent out on a long range scout for the NVA. After several harrowing days on patrol, Charlie inadvertently walked into the middle of a major NVA supply base. The NVA were situated in well fortified dirt-and-log bunkers, studded with automatic weapons, heavy machine guns and RPGs. Charlie, including more than two dozen “newbies” who had yet to fire a shot in anger, were instantly surrounded by six or seven times their numbers, pinned down, and fighting for their very lives. The beleaguered company commander got on the radio and called for help.

Mike Conrad sprinted for his helicopter, got in the air, jumped on the brigade frequency, and started marshaling resources to rescue his men. He called in TACAIR and artillery support; but, neither could do much good since the NVA and the Americans were intermingled. There was no way to fly in additional troops: there were no landing zones and the triple canopy jungle was far too dense for aerial insertion. Luckily, however, there was a single troop of cavalry from the 11th Armored nearby. Equally fortunate, these men were temporarily under Conrad’s operational command. Could they, by some miracle, “bust” enough jungle with their tanks and ACAVs to reach Conrad’s stranded men and pull them out? It was a desperate gamble, but one of the only plays available to Conrad, so he ordered these men to get moving.

Meanwhile, Conrad flew as close to his trapped grunts as survival would allow, constantly encouraging them and directing whatever artillery and air support he could. He tried many times to air drop supplies and ammunition. The NVA kept sending the helos away riddled with bullets, smoking, and often on fire. Only one relief mission, flown by General Casey himself, was able to get close enough to drop some badly needed water and ammunition.

Providentially, the cavalry was finally able to smash their way into the encirclement after several tense hours of punishing travel through the thick vegetation. The tanks and ACAVs pounded away at the NVA until all the surviving members of Charlie—and their dead—could be gathered up and safely extracted. It was a magnificent rescue and an inspiring tour de force, engineered by Mike Conrad’s quick thinking, tactical skill and, of course, his valiant troops.*

The tattered but unbroken remnants of Charlie (only 38 effective) were ordered to stand down and regroup at a nearby firebase that Conrad’s men had set up in a clearing about five miles away. This temporary outpost had been christened in the name of a 20-year old PFC by the name of “Jack” Illingworth, from the 2/8’s own Alpha Company. Illingworth had perished in a nasty firefight some two weeks prior, after heroically rescuing one of his own comrades, an act for which he would receive a posthumous Silver Star.

Conrad’s battalion had carved out FB Illingworth on March 17. The brigade’s G-2 had picked the spot from intel that indicated that it would be right on top of, or at least very close to, a major NVA infiltration route. The 1st Cav was throwing down another gauntlet, daring the NVA to protect their turf, begging them to come out and fight. Conrad’s’ troops would be the bait in a carefully staged trap—at least that was the plan. If the NVA didn’t take the bait—and they didn’t always follow the desires of the US Army—Conrad would, as he had done several times already, pick up his team and their weapons and move to another spot in four or five days. He already had his next jump coordinates selected, in fact.

Then something changed. A week went by. No orders to relocate came down the line. Charlie Company, before being pounced on March 26, had recovered documents from the body of a dead NVA officer. The man was carrying detailed sketches of FB Illingworth, including where all the guns were placed, the location of the TOC, the communications tower, and all of Conrad’s firing positions. That was it, as far as Conrad was concerned, and he hopped into his command helo to go see his boss, General Casey. Casey concurred with Conrad’s imperative to move the base, but, surprisingly, General Roberts demurred.  He wanted to hold tight, not only with Illingworth but also another nearby firebase, FB Jay, controlled by the 2/7. Conrad was dumbfounded; but, he had his orders.

Sure enough, in the early morning hours of March 29, FB Jay was subjected to an all-out assault by the 93rd NVA Regiment. Jay had been in position for eleven days, one day less than Illingworth. The NVA pounded Jay with artillery and rockets, then executed a full combat assault with several hundred infantry. The commander at Jay, Lt. Col. Robert Hannas, was gravely wounded, losing both legs to an RPG and a mortar round. His men held, however, but only by a whisker. Fifteen GIs were killed, another 54 wounded.

Surely now, Conrad believed, Illingworth would be abandoned. Imagine Conrad’s incredulity when, the next day, forty more tons of artillery ammunition arrived along with 30 replacements for Charlie Company.  “Stand fast,” he was told. “Dig in. General Roberts is happy with the action we are getting and he wants to see what will happen next.”

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This was it: the beginning of Mike Conrad’s defining hours. Consider Conrad’s plight: Most of his battalion, companies A, B, and D, were out on patrol, too far out, in fact, to hump back in time to make any difference over what Conrad now believed was imminent. Charlie company was in rough shape and dealing with a raft of “cherries” who had never been in combat. His only nearby resource was Echo Recon platoon, a group of 21 tough, experienced, combat veterans. He pulled them back in and put them on the line next to Charlie Company, along with the Echo mortar platoon. He had a handful of men in his headquarters company, several radio operators, a supply sergeant or two. Detachments of three artillery battalions had been sent to Illingworth. Among them were 80-plus “redlegs” and their guns. The 105 and 155 MM howitzers (eight guns altogether) could be useful, but two behemoth, 8-inch guns would not: they were for long range work, not the close in fighting Conrad knew was coming. Also aboard the base were three Sheridan tanks, but they were all awaiting repairs and virtually useless.

Conrad did have plenty of TACAIR on call and his artillery officers had dialed in firing assignments for all the nearby fire support bases. Would it be enough? Conrad knew it would have to be—or they’d all end up as casualties or POWs.

The command structure was not working in Conrad’s favor either. The artillery assets aboard his firebase were not under his command or control. They reported to division artillery. Immensely complicating Conrad’s situation was that “someone” at division artillery, no one knows who it was to this day, shipped Conrad 40 unneeded and definitely unwanted tons of 8-inch artillery ammunition the day before the battle. There was no time to bunker it in properly and no one to countermand the orders sending it to Illingworth. It would sit, in the middle of the base, in a large, unprotected pile, waiting for an enemy grenade or satchel charge to blow it all to kingdom come.

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Observation, intelligence, and experience all dictated that the enemy was lurking a few hundred yards away, in the jungle perimeter, setting up their available artillery and rockets. Conrad also suspected that there would be many more troops available to the NVA commander than the men he had available. Worse, there were no additional assets nearby that could get to Illingworth in time: the cavalry was over ten miles away, and there were no roads. All nearby infantry was dug in and defending the other firebases in the region. Conrad’s only external resource was TACAIR, as mentioned; but, the enemy would likely attack at night when airborne assets would be largely blind. Conrad also knew that the enemy would try to get in as close to his troops as quickly as possible. The tactic was dubbed  “danger close,” which meant “too close:” jets and attack helos would not be able to distinguish between friend and foe, thereby making it impossible to shoot.

Mike Conrad was finishing up his thirteenth year of commissioned service. He had done well. He was a lieutenant colonel with bright prospects and was already a favorite of his superiors. He was considered one of the best battalion commanders in the entire division. He had trained for this moment all his career. He had combat experience and a bucket full of academic honors. All of that was on the line. Depending on what he did with the next few hours of his life men would live or die and Conrad’s own career would move forward or effectively end. He was on the bubble. What would he do?

He could try and find some creative way to thwart his orders, but Mike Conrad was simply not that kind of soldier. He was a skilled and creative thinker, and a realist, but he was not a quitter and he would not thwart the chain of command. The command structure was not always right, he knew this, but breaking it, right or wrong, was not in his tradition, training, or schema. This was what he had been taught, what he believed, and it was what he would do. He knew, like countless others of his West Point forebears and peers, that the chain of command is the backbone of the military: break it, and you invite disaster, even if you’re ultimately proven right.

Mike Conrad would do the best he could with what he had, and if the chips fell his way, well, that would be good but if they didn’t, that was not going to be in his control.

Fire-Base-Illingworth-by-Philip-KeithAs darkness settled over FB Illingworth on the night of March 31, 1970, Conrad was convinced this would be the time when he and his men would be tested. He called all his officers together and gave them explicit instructions on how to handle each sector of their responsibilities. Conrad walked the entire post, with his radioman, several times, personally seeing to his dispositions and encouraging his troops. After darkness fell, he let his men stand down and grab some chow, have a smoke and catch a few minutes of sack time, but he held them in place, right where they needed to be, in their firing positions. Shortly after midnight, he executed a “mad minute,” opening up all the hand-held weapons on the base; but, knowing the enemy would be counting and spotting his guns, he had all the riflemen and machine gunners fire from “false” positions, then scurry back to their fortified and better entrenched emplacements. After the mad minute, Conrad passed the word for everyone to hunker down, under cover. He knew that any attack would begin with the NVA softening up the base with mortars, rockets, and artillery.

Shortly after 2 AM, the opening salvos from the NVA arched into the sky and starting raining down on Illingworth. The aim of the NVA was good: in the first few moments, they knocked down Conrad’s communications tower, effectively “blinding” him for long distance communication. He and his artillery liaison were able to communicate with a Blue Max helo pilot, circling above the base, who set up a comm link between Illingworth and division headquarters.

Seconds after the artillery barrage lifted, the 272nd NVA Regiment, over 400 strong, came boiling out of the jungle, attacking in waves of 30 or 40 at several different points along the perimeter. Fortunately for Conrad, unfortunately for the NVA, the enemy elected to concentrate its attacks at the southwest corner of the base, right where the infantry defense was the strongest.

Battle damage

Men grappled, fought, stabbed and shot each other in the darkness for the next hour. TACAIR roared overhead, savaging the NVA assault on its perimeters as men were fed into the fight. The 105-mm batteries, at zero elevation, banged away, punching gaps in the lines of the attackers. The redlegs who couldn’t use or sight their weapons for close-in work grabbed M-16s and frags and stepped up to the berm to fight as infantry. The unhorsed cavalrymen grabbed whatever handheld weapons they could scrounge and manned their portion of the sandbagged wall.

While all of this was going on, Conrad was everywhere: racing around the perimeter, plugging gaps, shifting men, pushing frightened soldiers back on the line. He tried to sow encouragement everywhere he went.

Shortly after 3 AM, as feared, the huge, unprotected stockpile of 8-inch ammunition blew. How it happened remains unknown: there were many small fires nearby; or, it could have been a satchel charge, grenade or mortar round. Some witnesses likened it to an atomic blast, complete with a giant mushroom cloud. Men close to the blast were sucked into the sky or pounded into the ground. Everyone else was tossed through the air or knocked flat. Eardrums were blown, guns ripped from hands, dirt and dust flew everywhere, so much so, in fact, that all weapons jammed. Combat came to a halt. For the next few minutes, death and destruction rained from the sky: 200-pound artillery shells, truck parts, sandbags, equipment, tools, and utensils of all kinds; and, of course, bodies, or parts of bodies.

Mike Conrad, at the time, was providentially in the TOC but later stated, “I thought it was the end of the world.”

A full ten minutes of silence passed. As friend and foe staggered back to their feet sporadic firing resumed, as soon as weapons could be cleaned, but the blast had broken the back of the attack. One by one, then in small groups, the enemy retreated into the jungle. The surviving Americans went about gathering up the few live prisoners left behind, mostly wounded, and rooting out the few attackers still willing to fight. A little after 4 AM, the main fight was over. Shortly thereafter, a company of Sherman tanks from the 11th Armored burst through the jungle thickets nearby. They had been charging hell bent for leather for the past four hours, riding to the rescue. They didn’t get there until the action was all but over, but when they arrived they threw an immediate and welcome cordon around the devastated compound.

At about 5 AM, the first of the dust-offs arrived, to evacuate the wounded, of which there were many. Brigade and division officers flew in to assess the damage and get first-hand reports on the action.  Mike Conrad was a mess, but he was alive and had only sustained cuts and bruises. He reported to General Casey covered in dirt, his voice hoarse from all the shouting he had done, and still coughing out spittles of dirt and dust from his grit-filled lungs. If anyone had a right to say, “I told you so!” it was Mike Conrad, but he did not. He delivered as professional a report as his exhaustion and depleted stamina would allow.

Conrad’s command had held together and repulsed an enemy force of far superior numbers. Over one hundred NVA bodies littered the battlefield—and those were just the corpses left behind. The NVA liked to remove their dead from the field, mostly to obscure their losses from a US Army obsessed with body counts.

General Roberts landed, told the men what an outstanding job they had done, handed out a few random Silver Stars from a cigar box stashed aboard his helicopter, then flew away after promising the survivors that a “hot meal” would be flown in “shortly.” It ultimately arrived in time for dinner.

General Casey was laudatory as well, praising Conrad for holding his command together in the face of very bad odds. He gave Conrad some good news and some bad: the good news was that he and his battalion would get a stand-down, back to the rear, to re-group and re-arm. The bad news was that it wouldn’t come until the next day: Conrad and his men would have to hold Illingworth one more night. Conrad was thunderstruck, but Casey was firm.  One more day.

Slowly, the survivors of Illingworth began to pick up the pieces, bag up the bodies and parts of bodies, reposition the artillery aiming stakes, find serviceable weapons and ammo, and bind up their wounds.  Many dust-offs came and went. Water and hot chow finally arrived. The chaplain held a mass amidst the wreckage.

Most, Mike Conrad included, thought the enemy might come back that night and try and finish the job. They nervously positioned their vastly thinned out ranks along the berm once more and waited. The night passed. The enemy did not return.

The next day Fire Base Illingworth was abandoned. The engineers arrived and dismantled everything, salvaging what they could. By the end of the day, Illingworth was no more—except for the large mound of earth covering the common grave of the enemy soldiers who had perished there.

Mike Conrad’s depleted battalion was pulled off the line. They were sent to the rear, as promised, to rest up and regroup. Little did they know that a month later they would be back in the thick of it, charging off with the rest of the division into Cambodia.

Mike Conrad had gone through hell and back, transiting his defining hours with valor and distinction. He would be awarded another Silver Star for his courage and leadership at Fire Base Illingworth. He would recommend one of his young E-Recon warriors, Peter Lemon, who exhibited extraordinary bravery during the dark hours at Illingworth, for the Medal of Honor. Lemon would receive that award more than a year later. Two Distinguished Service Crosses, both posthumous, were also earned by members of E-Recon, Sergeants Casey Waller, and Brent Street. There were also a slew of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Army Commendation Medals, too. Many Combat Infantryman Badges were earned, and dozens and dozens of Purple Hearts were granted.

Survivors at 9 AM on 4/1/70

The struggle at Fire Base Illingworth was the worst battle of the worst single day of the war in the year 1970. It was a battalion versus regiment slugfest with a 40% casualty rate on one side (the US) and better than a 50% casualty rate on the other (the 272nd NVA Regiment). Echoes from that contest, good and bad, echoed all the way from the battlefield to the White House.

Mike Conrad’s steadfast performance as a battalion commander at a very difficult time in the Vietnam War gained him notice and many friends. It certainly helped to propel him up the ladder. A year after Illingworth Mike was a full colonel, would make brigadier general  easily, then return to command his old division, the First Cavalry, and retire as a major general. He is still president of his West Point class, a group from which not only Mike emerged, but also BGEN John C. “Doc” Bahnsen and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

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Plaque remembering FSB Illingworth dedicated at the Artillery Museum 

The “defining hour” comes to all who don the uniform of a commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States. It certainly came for Mike Conrad, and he survived its passage with honor, dignity, courage and steadfastness. This brings me to my final point: Mike Conrad, although an exceptional officer, was one of many from his era of the same caliber. The national angst that we have had for over five decades relative to the Vietnam War has tended to obscure the careers, deeds, and courage of many men and women like Mike. It’s time to change that. It’s time to bring these men and women “home” to the place of honor and dignity that they should enjoy in our pantheon of true American heroes. Mike is an example of the best of the best, but he is only one of the many tens of thousands who served in Vietnam who have been sidelined or largely ignored. It’s time to change that dynamic. I am hopeful that there will be many more narratives like Mike Conrad’s to reach the gaze of the American public in the days ahead. We should do so before these stories and the wonderfully brave, loyal, and courageous Americans who made them are lost to us for good.

*Mike Conrad, General Casey and the cavalry troop commander would all receive Silver Stars for this action and Alpha Troop of the 11th Armored would be belatedly decorated with the Presidential Unit Citation.

Phil Keith is a Vietnam veteran. He is the author of Firebase Illingworth and Blackhorse Riders. As he was writing his new book, Firebase Illingworth, he researched Conrad, whose reputation as a leader was more than proven during Vietnam, and beyond, until he retired as a Major General years later.

FSB Illingworth today—a “fames field”— the outline of former FSB is just barely visible.

The Battle of Ap Gu occurred during 31 March and 1 April 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam, to the west of the capital Saigon. The battle near the border with Cambodia left 609 Viet Cong killed, 5 captured, and over 50 weapons of all types captured, while the Americans lost 17 killed and 102 wounded.

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Two American infantry battalions were scheduled to make an airborne assault into an area near the border with Cambodia to secure some roads and US bases, and to search and destroy communists in the surrounding area. The assault was scheduled for 30 March, but poor weather meant that one of the battalions did not land until the day after. In the early afternoon of 31 March, the Americans began reconnaissance missions, and one platoon was put into difficulty by a communist attack that killed their commanding officer. A few hours later, an American company was attacked by a battalion-sized communist force, and were in difficulty until supporting artillery allowed them to withdraw. The communists tried to exploit their advantage but were driven off by American firepower.

Before dawn the next day, the communists launched their main attacks on an American landing zone and fire support base with mortar fire and infantry charged. They managed to overrun a few bunkers and capture territory before the Americans called in air strikes and cluster bombs. This wore down the communists and they forced the Viet Cong to withdraw by early morning with heavy casualties.

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On 26 March the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, was told to prepare for an airborne assault deeper into War Zone C and nearer to the Cambodian border. At that time, the Battalion was attached to the 2d Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and was located at Fire Support Patrol Base C at Sroc Con Trang, where they were engaged in perimeter defense, road security, and occasional search and destroy operations. The plan was to make the landing on the morning of 30 March into what would be Landing Zone (LZ) George, some 14 km (9 mi) to the west. They would secure the zone for a follow-up landing by the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, and then conduct operations together in an area where Viet Cong are expected to be positioned.

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On the scheduled day of the assault, poor weather delayed the preparatory air strikes around and on the LZ, resulting in a two-hour delay. Thus, the assault of the 1/2nd Infantry was postponed until 31 March, and the 1/26th Infantry landed in the afternoon of 30 March at LZ George.  The LZ consisted of open fields covered with tall, meadow-like grass and the area was surrounded by medium to heavy jungle.  The remainder of the Battalion landed within an hour. Upon landing the Battalion dispatched cloverleaf patrols to try to intercept the Viet Cong. The patrols uncovered fortified positions in and around the LZ but made no contact. That evening the unit organized its night defensive position in the vicinity of the LZ. Fighting positions were dug with full overhead cover and interlocking fires all around, as was the standard practice. Listening posts were established and ambush patrols sent out. No significant contact with the Viet Cong occurred overnight.

The next morning, 31 March, the 1/2nd Infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Simpson landed at LZ George without incident. After this, they moved to 2 km (1 mi) southwest. The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry began their search and destroy operations in the surrounding area. Company A went south and C Company east. B Company remained in reserve, manning and patrolling the Battalion perimeter at the LZ The Battalion’s reconnaissance platoon was searching the woods northwest of the perimeter. The Viet Cong were expecting the Americans and had hung small signs written in English on the trees, warning that Americans who went beyond the signs would not return.

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At 13:00 the platoon moved further north into a wooded area, approximately 5 km (3 mi) south of the Cambodian border. There, first contact was made. The platoon’s point man was hit by enemy fire, and First Lieutenant Richard A. Hill went forward to check the situation, only to be mortally wounded. Only Hill’s radio operator was left in contact with the Battalion headquarters. Hill had advised the Battalion that his platoon was heavily engaged with automatic weapons, small arms, and grenades. Haig called for artillery support and after being advised that Hill was incapacitated, taking action to co-ordinate the artillery fire and air strikes in support of the platoon.

At the same time, B Company was closing on the perimeter after a sweep of the Battalion’s defensive zone. When advised of the reconnaissance platoon’s desperate position and that Hill had been hit, the commander of B Company took his men to the north to the assistance of the embattled platoon without the knowledge of Haig.

Colonel Haig boarded his helicopter, and it was not until he was airborne that he learned of B Company’s move. As Haig pointed out later, while Company B’s move was necessary, the lack of accurate control of artillery and air support complicated the problem. As a result, B Company had entered the battle without sufficient preparation and found itself heavily engaged along with the reconnaissance platoon.

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The B Company commander reported that he was confronting a Viet Cong force of at least Battalion-size, and his optimism gradually faded; his men were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles, and was running low on ammunition. Haig realized that reinforcements and relief were necessary.  Company A was alerted and ordered to move forward to relieve B Company.

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Haig landed near the battle and had his Battalion operations officer take to the air to control fire direction. Haig found Hill’s body and the B Company commander wounded. Haig stayed and was joined by the A Company commander, who had moved his unit through and gained fire superiority over the enemy force.

The American artillery and air strikes increased, permitting all units, except initially two platoons of A Company still in contact, to be withdrawn under fire cover. As the Americans moved back, the Viet Cong left their bunkers and moved forward to try to keep the pressure on the Americans, but they were forced to stop because of the American bombardment, and the fighting stopped at 17:05. Seven Americans were killed and 38 wounded in the initial skirmish, while the Viet Cong casualties were unknown at that time.

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Meanwhile, the Division commander, General John H. Hay, had ordered reinforcements. At 15:55 the first element of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, except C Company, touched down at LZ George under Viet Cong sniper fire and occupied positions to the west and northwest of the 1/26th Infantry. The Battalion, led by Colonel Rufus C. Lazzell, established night defensive positions. The two Battalions coordinated defensive plans to improve their fighting positions, establish listening posts, and send out ambush patrols

During the night, American harassment and interdiction artillery and mortar fires were placed in the area around the perimeter. From midnight until 04:00 on 1 April, listening posts to the north,  east, and south reported movement to their front; however, their contact was insignificant contact. Mortar fire was directed into areas of suspected Viet Cong activity.

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At 04:55 a single Viet Cong mortar round exploded to the front of the perimeter of the 1/26th Infantry. Haig heard and correctly interpreted it to be a registration round for a mortar attack. He immediately ordered all of his companies to be on full alert posture and directed them to take cover and be prepared for an attack. He also recommended that the 1/16th Infantry do the same, and Lazzell’s unit complied.

Haig immediately requested Capt. Dave Ernest lay down artillery cover fire. Five minutes after the Viet Cong registration round landed, the first of several hundred rounds of 60-mm., 82-mm., and 120-mm. mortar fire was directed into the northern portions of the American perimeter. The Americans estimated the source of fire to be 1 km (1 mi) northeast of the defensive perimeter. They could hear the rounds being fired and concluded that the Viet Cong were nearby, and that so many mortars were firing that they “sounded like loud, heavy machine guns.” Due to the early warning and thus the rapid response, only 12 men were wounded.

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At the same time, the mortar attack opened on the units in LZ George, a coordinated attack was launched against Fire Support Patrol Base C, where much of the artillery for the 1/26th Infantry and the 1/16th Infantry was dug in. The incoming mortar and 75-mm. pack howitzer rounds hit the artillery base and made it more inefficient. However, the artillery that had moved into Fire Support Patrol Base Thrust, on 29 March was not under incoming mortar attack and could provide support unhindered. The Americans were surprised that the Viet Cong did not attack this base to try to hinder their artillery fire.

Haig felt that the Viet Cong had wanted to press on after the previous day’s attack and that he would have taken the initiative if his opponents had not.  The heavy mortar attack ended at 05:15, but continued for a further hour at Fire Support Patrol Base C. During this time flare ships, a light helicopter fire team, and forward air controllers were furnished by the 2d Brigade tactical headquarters on request. Seven minutes later the Viet Cong started their ground attack against the northeast edge of the perimeter.

The attack mainly hit B and C Companies of the 1/26th Infantry, and A Company and the reconnaissance platoon of the 1/16th Infantry. As the soldiers manning the friendly listening posts withdrew to the perimeter, the Viet Cong followed them in. The withdrawing Americans had accidentally set off flares, allowing the Viet Cong to see them and open fire will small arms and machine guns, backed by mortars.

The surprise attack caught the Americans off guard and resulted in the capture of three bunkers and the capture of territory roughly 40 m by 100 m wide in the C Company sector and close-quarters hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Haig later admitted that the night defensive position he selected, with a natural wood line leading into the northeast portion of the perimeter made this the most vulnerable portion of his perimeter and that the Viet Cong were clever in attacking at this point.  The Americans had to fall back 75 m to consolidate.

The commander of Company C, Captain Brian H. Cundiff, defying the intense fire, moved among his men and organized an effective response to the Viet Cong penetration. At 06:30 the reserve of the 1/26th Infantry, the reconnaissance platoon, moved into a blocking position behind C Company and, along with B Company, fought to re-establish the original perimeter. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong launched diversionary attacks from the east and west. By this time, flights for air strikes were coming over the target area four times an hour, providing continuous air cover.

Initially, there was some difficulty in getting the flights loaded with cluster bombs; these were seen as essential and the most effective ordnance for the situation, as the Viet Cong were in the open, in close range to the Americans, and as the pilot can release the cluster bombs from a low level within 30 m of the Americans without harming them.

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The main Viet Cong attack was beginning to be worn down by the American firepower. Light and heavy helicopter fire teams were aiming rockets and miniguns on the wood line to the northeast; artillery was massing along the east flank and in depth to the east. As the flights arrived with cluster bombs and attacked within thirty meters of the American positions, large groups of Viet Cong bodies formed. As the ordnance began taking its toll, the Viet Cong started to run, many throwing down their weapons.

In the meantime, Captain Cundiff led elements of C Company, reinforced by the 1st Platoon of B Company, in a massive counter-attack that pushed the remaining Viet Cong back into the American artillery barrages and air strikes and by 08:00 the perimeter was restored.

As the Viet Cong began withdrawing, the 1/2nd Infantry and the 1/16th Infantry passed through the 1/26th Infantry to pursue the Viet Cong to the east and northeast. However, they could not make substantial contact. Artillery and air strikes were ordered on suspected withdrawal routes and camps.

After the battle was over, the Americans found 491 Viet Cong bodies in their base area, but concluded that there were many more deaths. The Americans concluded that they had confronted three battalions of the 271st Viet Cong Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division and elements of the 70th Guard Regiment and that they had killed 609 and captured 5, and recovered over 50 weapons of all types. The Americans reported 17 killed and 102 wounded.

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During the mortar attack on Fire Support Patrol Base C, where the 2d Brigade command post was located, Colonel Grimsley was wounded and evacuated, and General James F. Hollingsworth took command. Later that day, Colonel Haig took over.

During the battle, artillery from Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion 7th Field Artillery, under Captain David Ernest, had fired around 15,000 rounds, while the United States Air Force jet fighter-bombers recorded 103 sorties amounting to over 100 tons of ordnance dropped.

Haig felt that the air power, particularly cluster bombs, were the main factor in the US success, although he also acknowledged the artillery and mortar in grinding down the Viet Cong. However, he also claimed that without all of the components used in the American effort, it would have failed.

Haig claimed that Ap Gu and Operation Attleboro showed the Viet Cong were tactically and strategically naïve and inflexible at large-unit open combat.

NOTE:  There are volumes of books that list every battle / operation of the war.  This was not my intent here.

Information used for the series of battles in this article was obtained from The History Channel, Military Channel, YouTube, Tropic Lightning News, Wikipedia, and Vietnam Magazine.


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5 thoughts on “More Military Engagements of the Vietnam War

  1. I’m a widow of a Marine of the Vietnam war…he served with India 3/1 and Mike 3/1 in 1969……wounded twice…once with India and once with Mike……I enjoyed reading your articles…although it made me feel a little sick…thinking about what so many went through and endured….and what my husband went through and saw……he had PTSD very bad….nightmares and night sweats…but he was a good man and we were married 30 years before he died May 21, 2002….he will always be my Hero….”Semper Fidelis”…………

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