Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Memories of Vietnam (II): Surprised to be surrounded by a huge Viet Cong force

As we went on short final into the LZ, we could see less and less until on the ground, we could see nothing. The strikes had set the grass and dried brush on fire and I couldn't see 10 feet. Between the helicopters churning dust, the swirling diesel fumes and the burning grass and palms, we were completely isolated. SFC Swyers, Cpt Tot, his RTO's and myself, took a compass direction and headed off the LZ.

1024px-Army_L-19_FAC_1968
1024px-Army_L-19_FAC_1968

By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (ret.)
Best Defense guest memoirist

As we went on short final into the LZ, we could see less and less until on the ground, we could see nothing.  The strikes had set the grass and dried brush on fire and I couldn't see 10 feet.  Between the helicopters churning dust, the swirling diesel fumes and the burning grass and palms, we were completely isolated. SFC Swyers, Cpt Tot, his RTO's and myself, took a compass direction and headed off the LZ.

captainhiep

captainhiep

By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (ret.)
Best Defense guest memoirist

As we went on short final into the LZ, we could see less and less until on the ground, we could see nothing.  The strikes had set the grass and dried brush on fire and I couldn’t see 10 feet.  Between the helicopters churning dust, the swirling diesel fumes and the burning grass and palms, we were completely isolated. SFC Swyers, Cpt Tot, his RTO’s and myself, took a compass direction and headed off the LZ.

Within a few minutes, it was now about 1630, we found ourselves inside the jungle where it was cool, calm and quiet.  With all personnel accounted for, Hiep ordered us all to move out.  While there was no plan to use artillery along the way, we had the support of the US 175mm artillery from Xuan Loc if needed.  This was the only artillery with sufficient range to reach us as the Cav artillery had not displaced and the 18th Div did not think their 155mm artillery necessary for the operation.

We progressed for better than an hour as single file columns with an estimated two hours to the objective.  Along the way, we made few stops.  The distance between columns was about 100 meters but we could only rarely see elements of each other through the dense vegetation.  At one point, SFC Swyers pointed to the map, indicated a brown contour line and said we were about 300 meters from the objective.  Our column was traveling to the East of Major Hiep.  At not quite 1700, shots were suddenly fired to my immediate right (East) front. A Ranger and a VC sentry engaged each other.  I saw the muzzle flash and immediately returned automatic fire with my M16.  My rounds hit the grenade belt the VC was wearing and there was a bright flash.  At that point, everyone started moving and shouting.

I immediately called for artillery and in a few minutes the first rounds landed to our front.  The 175mm was a very large round and exploded with a much larger blast than any Rangers had previously experienced.  Concurrently, we were on the gun-target line, the direct line between the gun and the target and this created a significant problem.  The 175mm has very little deviation left or right from the gun line but significant range error -especially at maximum range at which we were.  As I could not see the rounds exploding, I had to adjust by sound.  I would get some sensings from the Rangers at the point but accuracy was difficult as the refires were slow and we were moving rapidly.  Almost at the basecamp, the rounds were impacting both on the VC and very near to lead elements and Tot asked me to cease fire which I did.

At this time, we had an L-19 overhead which could not see us or the basecamp but kept us in constant touch with Xuan Loc.  This was a major confidence factor as it was beginning to get dark and under the canopy, it became dark very quickly.

To our West, Hiep had immediately understood what was happening after his lead elements broke into the front of the basecamp.  He told me later that he saw he was in a camp much larger than expected and that he sensed we were against at least a battalion rather than a company.  He and the lead Rangers could see the several lines of zig zag trenches with low corner bunkers and .51 Cal machine guns and the many VC working around them.  How we caught them by surprise I will never understand but I guess the jungle dampens the loudest sounds.

Hiep immediately ordered all Rangers to attack the basecamp.  His rationale was that if we did not attack, we would be overrun in the jungle by what was clearly a superior force.  Our survival depended on our ability to take advantage of surprise and overrun the basecamp.  Within 10 minutes, we occupied two thirds of the basecamp and were entrenched in their own lines when it became dark and we had to consolidate for the night.

Our spotter aircraft circled overhead relaying our situation but it could not see us through the canopy.  I began to call 175mm artillery again and registered rounds all around us.  My technique, again relying purely on sound sensings, was to bring the rounds in to our positions until the front line screamed “No more. ” (Dung Ban!)  At that point, I told the artillery to adjust 100m closer but not fire.  It was now pitch dark and eerily silent.

SFC Swyers and I were behind one large banyan tree with wide spreading roots at the ground.  Tot and his RTO’s were next to us behind another.  The bullets from the 51 caliber’s were cutting all the limbs and trunks above our heads and we kept ourselves flat on the ground or directly behind the thickest part of the tree as the wood shards and leaves rained down with every swing of the gun in our direction (I have since lost a picture I took two days later that shows the tree from the VC side shredded to splinters but with the trunk core still standing.)  The original tree had a diameter that must have exceeded 5 feet.

All night, we could hear the sound of bamboo clicking against bamboo around our perimeter.  Tot told me that was VC guides marking our positions.  There was only occasional firing but we slept very little.

I moved over to Hiep’s position and found his radio operators in a piece of low ground using the old US WW II hand crank radio to send Morse messages to Xuan Loc advising them of our situation.  His FM radio was useless talking to Xuan Loc and our pilot was not bilingual.  We were told that the 48th was located in the LZ and would “reinforce” us and that the 11th ACR had organized a night assault from the South.  We could actually hear elements of the 48th unload from trucks.

Cpt Shine and I, through our airborne radio relay, concentrated on gaining helicopter gunship support and getting night flare missions over our position.  Around midnight, a very thick fog settled over us and it became almost impossible to accurately adjust the C47 Spooky flare ship.  Like the artillery, all adjustments were by sound or the glow of flares through the fog rather than visual reference point.  It became very frustrating to have the C47 unload flares everywhere but over us.  I used my pen gun flares from behind the tree but had to stop as it was drawing fire. Above, the Spooky pilot told me he could see nothing but a fog blanket.  Cpt Shine and I both tried and eventually the Spooky had to return to Bien Hoa but not before he promised to return at first light with guns.

It was under this fog blanket, we later learned, that the VC boated two and half battalions of infantry from the North side of the Dong Nai into the basecamp at the head of the river oxbow. Thankfully, we did not know this at the time.

Meanwhile, Hiep had asked for the 48th Regiment to join us.  While they never said No, they never moved either.  It was soon clear that they would not come this night.  Soon after midnight, we heard a lot of firing and explosions to the South.  We later learned that this was an ambush of the 11th ACR the VC had set at a ford site that effectively prevented their joining us.

I believe the VC had carefully thought out this entire action ahead of time (possibly with the help of the 18th Div CG) and knew the 11th had to cross at that particular site.  Quite possibly, this entire action was designed to destroy the 52d BDQ, the only effective RVN force in Long Khanh Province.

The L19 pilots changed out about the same time and informed us we would have helicopter gunship support from the 11th ACR at first light.  Concurrently, MACV was assembling tactical air support for us.  Just before dawn the VC began strong probing attacks.

It is important to understand the tactical geography we were dealing with. The basecamp was constructed in an oxbow (large loop) at the point where the Dong Nai went North and then abruptly South.  On the point of the Southern loop a small creek, the Suoi Long, wound its way into the jungle.  The stream had very steep banks and was covered on both sides by bamboo brush with very sharp thorns.  This obstacle cut our left flank and much of our rear.  My side, the Eastern perimeter, was bound by the edge of the Dong Nai and was the way we had come-in essence, we were at the narrow part of a funnel.  While this gave us interior lines, it made us vulnerable to the rear and provided little maneuver room.  Our front was the first two trench lines of the basecamp.

Soon, we began to receive showers of grenades and mortars.  We could hear the distinct sound of the sandpaper scratching fuse igniters of the small grenades and hear them clunk against the tree trunks and vegetation.  Most did not explode but we always winched in anticipation.  I counted more than a dozen duds in front of our tree when we returned several days later.

We could hear the mortars being fired to our flank and rear and then clunk and slam themselves through the canopy above.  Probably less than half actually exploded as the canopy deflected the rounds.  Regardless, enough went off near us to keep our attention.  Several went off directly above me but we were protected by the highest large limbs.

As soon as I heard the sound of rounds igniting in the mortar tube, I swung my compass around and provided a direction to the L19 pilot.  Almost immediately, he spotted the firing flashes, rolled in with his marking rockets and knocked out the position.  However, we couldn’t really tell any difference as the volume of small arms fire began to rapidly pickup.

Soon, it was apparent that we were being pushed from forces on all sides, including some in the rear.  Fortunately, these attacks were not well coordinated.  We were able to defend against each separate attack.  However, after about an hour, now 0630 and first light, we were on the edge of being overrun.  At our position to the rear and side of the Ranger front, Swyers and I were engaging infiltrators every few minutes.  Our entire position soon became increasingly constricted.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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