Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Memories of Vietnam (III): Bombing our way out of being encircled by the VC

We ceded our right (East) flank on the river and drew closer toward the center.


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on April 16, 2015.

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on April 16, 2015.

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

We ceded our right (East) flank on the river and drew closer toward the center. Our center lost the two main trench lines and we were forced back to the edge of the jungle basecamp clearing. This became increasingly difficult as it allowed the VC 51 caliber’s to fire with great effect. The Rangers were forced to hug the ground and seek cover behind any low root or ground. No one could raise their head more than six inches without risking a hit. While the BDQ was forced closer together, the concentrated enemy fire made it increasingly difficult to effectively defend the position.

At this time, the first helicopter gunships arrived. It was at the cusp of daylight and the gunners could not yet clearly separate VC from Rangers. I called for the first run and the initial tracer rounds stitched our rear. I can clearly remember lying on the ground behind the tree and watching in a very detached manner the line of red tracers sew a pattern from well behind me in a line less than a yard from my body as it stitched its way toward the enemy. I told the gunners to make the same run and delay their fire for 2 seconds. The second pass was perfect. It was almost as if this very near miss was quite minor compared to the other near misses which had preceded it.

Hiep now saw that we were in a truly desperate situation and called in his company commanders. MACV had begun to stack up tactical airstrikes and the L19 was circling them at various altitudes overhead and sending them against the oxbow land south of the river and the edge of the basecamp as their fuel ran low. To this point, the canopy still hid the positions from the air but the leaves and trees were beginning to disappear from the combined effects of mortars, artillery, airstrikes and small arms. I had begun to refire the 175mm as it had a very great effect even if we took occasional casualties from a short round. A 175mm makes a very large hole and its sound was one of the few comforts we had at the moment. By this time, 0630, we probably occupied a circular perimeter less than a 100 meters in width and 50 meters in depth.

Hiep’s plan, as briefed to me by Captain Shine, was born of desperation and would require a degree of courage and discipline that few units in the world could muster. The Second Company, the center of the line and the most heavily engaged, would assault the attacking VC, concurrent with an airstrike on our Eastern (Right/my) flank. Then, the L19 would bring in continuous airstrikes right behind that and leading toward the original LZ. We would leapfrog behind each bomb strike to the new craters and move toward safety-hoping the VC could not follow the bombline.

All the company commanders shook Hiep’s hand and went back to their positions. When Cpt Shine told Hiep the airstrikes were inbound, Hiep gave the command to charge to the Second Company Commander (Tuy Uy Tang).  He fired a .45 round into his PRC 25 radio dial and ordered the assault. At this time, several things happened very quickly.

At the moment of the order, the VC commander in the center whistled his troops to begin their assault against us. His whistle drew the attention of our Montagnard M60 gunner who hit him squarely in the chest (I remember the sound of his breath going one way, then abruptly the other). Second Company ran directly into a line of VC massed to move forward and completely caught them by surprise, stopping their momentum.

The VC were organized in lines of massed soldiers at each trench. The lead element closest to us would raise up, fire at full automatic and shower grenades and move forward as far as their momentum could carry them. The lines behind would rise up and run forward to the just emptied trenches. In this manner, they kept pressuring us to the rear–but at a great cost to themselves. By this time, most engagements were less than five yards apart and most within a yard.  No movement was possible-you held the position or you were overrun.

At the moment of the Second Company assault, the first airstrikes rolled in our right flank. The L19 pilot shouted that it had hit a major VC force. The initial bombs exploded the canopy and opened up the ground to view for the first time.  The second set landed squarely in the middle of a battalion just getting on line to assault our flank (my side). We were unaware of its existence and had it attacked, we would have been wiped out.

From then on, everything happened very quickly. The Second Company assault bought enough time for the rest of us to swing to the East behind them and move with the exploding bombs which now rained in a continuous stream. (We were later told that we had 72 tactical airstrikes in 45 minutes-something of an Air Force record). We had napalm (God bless Dow Chemical!), cluster bomblets, 250, 500, 750 and 1,000 pound bombs from everything ranging from VNAF A1E’s to Canberras to F4’s.The sound was deafening and it showered us with mud, splinters and leaves for the entire trek back to our start point. This period is just a haze of noise, adrenaline, dirt and disconnected rapid movements until we broke out into sunlight on the edge of the burned LZ where we had started the day prior.

Within 20 minutes of the initial assault, we assembled as many people as we could find while moving toward safety. Many Rangers carried wounded comrades and everyone was very quiet and focused. At one point, Hiep turned to me after some AK 47 shots were heard to say that the VC were shooting the wounded.

Eventually, we found our way back to the same rubber plantation woodline we had left the day before. We formed a small circle behind a large fallen log, expecting the VC to attack at any moment. I lit a Pall Mall and walked around the perimeter reporting to Cpt Shine I was able to count only 32 Rangers out of the 450 we had the previous day. We had not yet met any friendly forces but at least could see open terrain and the sky was full of helicopters and aircraft. The L19 also informed us that the 11th ACR had artillery within range and I began to adjust in our perimeter. Hiep asked me to cease fire as he was afraid we would hit our soldiers trying to join us that had become separated.

Later that day, the Commander of the 48th directed Hiep to join him less than a hundred yards from our position. I remember being incensed that they didn’t come to us. Walking to their position and seeing them all resting in fresh uniforms and eating, we (all the U.S.) refused to talk to their U.S. counterparts who quickly made themselves scarce.  Hiep delivered a tongue lashing to the Colonel (who ranked him by two levels) and we abruptly left.

Soon, APC’s from the 48th joined us and we slept in a single perimeter. That night, we were awakened and flattened to the ground as a B52 Arclight strike hit the basecamp and another target. I clearly remember being thrown to the ground and watching the earth literally roll toward me in successive waves as the bomb shockwaves moved the earth.

The next day, the 25th, we retraced our steps now with the 11th ACR and the 48th.  We followed the bombline edge and eventually came back to the camp. It was now fully exposed in sunlight and we could, for the first time, see its extent. There were at least five major zigzag trenches, each anchored by large low offset bunkers at the corners and one in the center.  Each bunker had firing ports on the oblique providing interlocking fire throughout the position. Between each trenchline, was a cooking bunker and sleeping or command bunkers. The position could easily absorb a regiment or more. The edge of the front was cleared less than 5 yards from the jungle making it virtually impossible to see until an intruder was in the band of defensive fires.

Throughout the battlefield, were arrayed the bodies of the combatants. Stacks of VC lay in every trench and the ground between trenches. Parts of people and equipment were scattered in the shattered stumps of trees and limbs as so much leaves. In many cases, it was extremely hard to differentiate between Rangers and VC due to the violence.

However, some things were very clear. The identifiable Rangers were all facing toward the basecamp — their direction of fire. Here and there, you could see clear signs where individual Rangers had tried to clear a low spot in the ground with their arms and legs from the low grazing fire. In daylight, the marks on the dirt were much like what kids make creating angels in the snow.

We began the task of separating and loading the Ranger dead for evacuation and massing the VC for on site burial. The VC were uniformly young and obviously fresh new replacements. They were probably between the ages of 16 and 18 and all had short cut hair and new equipment and black pajamas. I imagine this was their first combat.

The day was exceptionally hot, especially in the newly opened canopy direct sunlight. Soon we were visited by various Generals wanting to see the battlefield. The senior General of the day was the CG of the RVN Marines who was clearly moved and appreciative. He spent considerable time talking to Hiep and the Rangers and was profoundly effected by what he saw.

In the course of the day, I was shown a grouping of bodies. It was a Ranger medic bent over another Ranger.  He had been shot in the head by a VC as he was tending his wounded buddy. Many VC and Rangers were pulled off of each other attesting to the hand to hand combat. Where Second Company had made its assault, groups of both sides were intermingled in the center of the camp. I recall thinking how close we all were yet how little we each were aware of events beyond the reach of our physical accessibility. In my memory, what was happening within yards of me clearly went unnoticed.

Toward the end, one of the Rangers brought me to one of the last trenches in the position. In the bottom, lay what looked like a sleeping girl. It was a dead VC nurse with long hair draped across her cheek and covering her side almost to her waist. The soldiers, from the 48th, were looking at her and talking. I got a body bag and placed her inside.  Insofar as I know, she was the only VC we evacuated for burial.  The rest and what parts we could not identify, we buried in the trenches.

Several days later, a “victory” ceremony was held in Xuan Loc to recognize the Rangers.Cpt Shine had to talk to us very sternly to insure we didn’t say anything bad about the 48th and to smile. I know Hiep had the same problem with his men. For the rest of the month, lost Rangers began to wander back. Eventually, we had around 200 of the original battalion back. In one famous incident reported in Armor magazine, an 11th ACR helicopter spotted a figure standing in the jungle. It swooped low and the door gunner identified it as a Vietnamese waving a rag. The helicopter, covered by a gunship, landed. Walking slowly out of the brush was a Ranger NCO with another Ranger on his back.  The NCO had a sucking chest wound that was bleeding and no boots. Over his right shoulder was his wounded buddy and on his left shoulder was both their TA 50 and rifles. They had been evading the VC and seeking recovery for more than five days–Rangers in anybody’s book!

In Christmas of 1968, several Second Company Rangers were released by the VC as a goodwill gesture. They reported that they had been captured after the escape assault and moved across the Dong Nai to a larger basecamp where they said they had seen both Chinese and Russian advisors. They also said the B-52 strike on the first night had hit part of the basecamp and resulted in the death of a major VC or NVA general. They reported that they had to divert their movement to take the body to the border where it was evacuated by helicopter to the North.  We had no reason not to believe them.

After this, we were sent to Trang Bang Ranger Training Center for refitting. The action went largely unnoticed by the US media and there was no follow-up on the part of MACV for lessons learned or other potentially useful information. It was just another day at work.

The End


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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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