Memories of Vietnam, spring 1968: When we encircled and destroyed the enemy
By Lt. Gen. John Cushman, USA (Ret.) Best Defense department of living history At the end of April 1968 the 2nd Brigade Task Force (three infantry battalions, one cavalry squadron, artillery, and other units) of the 101st Airborne Division was operating north of Hue. Three principles governed our operations: Work closely with the Vietnamese. Maintain ...
By Lt. Gen. John Cushman, USA (Ret.)
By Lt. Gen. John Cushman, USA (Ret.)
Best Defense department of living history
At the end of April 1968 the 2nd Brigade Task Force (three infantry battalions, one cavalry squadron, artillery, and other units) of the 101st Airborne Division was operating north of Hue. Three principles governed our operations: Work closely with the Vietnamese. Maintain unrelenting pressure on the enemy. At every opportunity surround the enemy and destroy him.
The brigade was getting a reputation. An NVA prisoner had quoted his company commander, “If we make contact with the airborne, we get out fast. They will surround and kill you.” At my command post an NVA prisoner was being interrogated. I saw him pointing at the Screaming Eagle patch on a nearby trooper. The interpreter told me he was saying, “That little bird is real mean.”
Then came our encirclement at Phuoc Yen.
On April 28, a few miles from our base camp at LZ Sally, the 1st ARVN Division’s Black Panther Company working with the 1/501 Infantry made heavy contact. It was at the north, or open, end of a “stocking” formed by the Song Bo River around that village. Jim Hunt, commanding the 1/501, used the river to trap the enemy.
He moved his B Company alongside the Black Panthers. He moved his A Company overland to the Song Bo’s bank, west of the village. Jack Bishop’s A/1/502, was helicoptered in; it closed the top of the stocking. He placed the helilifted B/2/501 on the south bank. We arranged with the district chief for three Popular Force platoons and a platoon of hamlet militia to cover the east bank. Two-man foxholes ten feet apart ringed the encircled enemy. At night flare ships lit up the battlefield. The enemy fought on. Air, artillery, and loudspeakers were called in. We reinforced the cordon. On May 3, after defeating a last attempt to escape, the troops cleaned out Phuoc Yen.
They took 107 prisoners. They captured scores of weapons and the battalion’s radio suite, plus its SOI. U.S. losses: 8 KIA, 44 WIA. ARVN losses: 3 KIA, 12 WIA. We had wiped out the 8th Battalion, 90th NVA Regiment.
An encirclement began on May 5 when Huong Tra district reported that an NVA force had holed up in La Chu, just off of Highway 1. Commanding the 2/501 Infantry, Dick Tallman used his D Company to establish contact with the NVA at the hamlet’s north. By nightfall he had air assaulted his B and C Companies to join the nearby D/1/501 in a four company encirclement.
The next day we pulled back the rifle companies on the east, west, and south sides. We brought in Julius Becton’s 2/17 Cav, beefed up with APCs and tanks. After an artillery preparation and four air strikes, the 2/17 attacked south, D/1/501 on the right, and B/2/17 on the left. A/2/17 swung around to attack the hamlet from the east.
An after-action report: “Progress was slow as the troops made a thorough search of a vast network of bunkers and trenches… Intense fighting continued under continuous illumination as the units advanced slowly and attacked the well-entrenched enemy… Not until 0100 were the final series of bunkers overrun… A sweep at first light revealed that elements of the C115 Local Force Company and the 9th Battalion, 90th Infantry Regiment, had been destroyed.” U.S. casualties: 2 KIA,14 WIA.
These were two in a series of eleven encirclements by the 2nd Brigade in March-June of 1968. Along with other brigade operations, and combined with the aggressive operations of the 1st ARVN Division and province forces, we together broke the back of the NVA in Thua Thien province.
In our final encirclement the 1/501 Infantry, the 2/17 Cavalry, a task force of the Vietnamese army and navy units commanded by the Thua Thien province chief, and three platoons of U.S. Marines (Ontos, Tank, and Amtrac) operated under brigade control south of Hue in a heavily infested enemy shore line. From the after action report:
“On June 2, TF 2/17 Cav, with all elements of the encirclement now under its opcon, maintained pressure on the enemy and completed an airtight encirclement. That night the enemy sought vainly to break out overland and RVN Navy boats on patrol captured 5 NVA prisoners with weapons. On June 3, as psyops appeals to surrender were broadcast, TF 2/17 troops began to sweep into the village. After another encirclement night the battles of TF 2/17 and TF 7 were over.”
That action was the end of heavy fighting in my time as brigade commander.
The redoubtable Major General Ngo Quang Truong, commanding the 1st ARVN Division, and his province chiefs were invaluable partners. One day in early June 1968 I was in his office. He invited me to the Vietnamese Armed Forces Day ceremonies two weeks hence, saying “Bring your colors.” He had arranged for the president of the Republic of Vietnam to present his country’s cross of gallantry with palm to the 2nd Brigade and to all its task force units.
I am grateful for the performance of commanders like Jim Hunt, Dick Tallman, Jack Bishop, and Julius Becton and their troops. Without that I would not be a general. How do I know this?
I have been told that immediately after General Bill Rosson, Deputy COMUSMACV, stood alongside me at Phuoc Yen on May 1, 1968, he went to the command post of the 101st Airborne Division. There he told the division commander, “I want you to write an efficiency report on Cushman that will make him a brigadier general.” That report was on the top of my file when the board met in June.
In April 1970 I returned to Vietnam to be an advisor in the Delta. At a 101st command briefing, I learned that the 8th Battalion, 90th NVA Regiment, destroyed at Phuoc Yen, was in the enemy order of battle. It had been reconstituted down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Go to http://www.angelfire.com/rebellion/101abndivvietvets/. Scroll all the way down to ‘War Stories’ and click. Then click on the seventh item; it is a week by week tale of the 2d Brigade Task Force, January-June 1968.
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