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This narrative recounts a single major battle fought between the 52d Vietnamese Ranger Battalion and a Main Force VC element in excess of two regiments between 23-24 June 1967 along the Dong Nai River, War Zone D, north of Xuan Loc, the provincial capitol of Long Khanh Province. The Battalion Commander was Maj Hiep (since killed in a re-education camp) His counterpart was Captain Al Shine, the Senior Advisor. I was assigned to Captain Tot, the Executive Officer and had as my NCO SFC Swyers, a Ranger NCO with considerable Korean War experience. Al and myself also each had an RTO-mine was nicknamed "Elephant" due to his huge size-even by US standards. At six feet, three inches myself, "blending into the unit" was not an option despite the best advice of the Saigon in-country instruction.
During this action, the 52d was organized into four rifle companies and an HHC. Each rifle company had approximately 80-90 personnel. The total battalion strength on the LZ was approximately 450. The primary armaments were the M1 carbine, BAR, .30 cal M1919 Light MG and M79 grenade launcher. The soldiers were primarily the social outcasts of Vietnamese society. The officers were predominately ethnic North Vietnamese who had fled south at the demarcation in 1954. All would be described as fatalists who fully expected to die fighting the communists and had no expectations of living out the war. Through continuous experience, they were exceptionally proficient disciplined combat soldiers. In garrison, they were usually less than quality citizens. They had no use for their government or their senior leadership. They lived to kill and expected to be killed.
The VC force encountered was a "Main Force" element at full strength primarily populated with new soldiers and new equipment. Post operation sweeps showed that most corpses were teenagers with new uniforms, fresh haircuts, equipment and weapons. Most VC were armed with AK 47's with new canvas magazine carriers and stick grenade belts. Additional weapons were .51 cal HMG, RPG's, RPK squad automatic weapon and 81mm mortars.
I joined the 52d BDQ at Xuan Loc basecamp, or Ranger Hill as it was known by us, in April of 1967 as a 1st Lt Deputy Senior Advisor. From the perspective of the occupants of the MAVC compound, it might as well have been Siberia. They were primarily responsible for the 18th ARVN Division and the Province forces and we had few cordial relations or mutual interests. The feeling was mutual between the Rangers and their Vietnamese counterparts in Xuan Loc. Both elements had a decidedly hostile attitude toward each other. The Rangers had no regard for the 18th-completely justifiable in my experience as we saw in the Suoi Long action-and the 18th worked to keep the 52d in the field as often as possible to compensate for its own lack of operations. (I understand after the fall of RVN, the Division Commander was identified as a VC). Eventually, Ranger Hill was significantly upgraded with building material and weapons I gathered in Bien Hoa and Long Binh Junction in return for ắwar souveniersă most of which were manufactured by the wives for "trading" purposes. I am told the concrete command bunker still exists. The weapons, primarily 50 caliber's and 81mm mortars were decisive during Tet 68 when employed by Ranger wives and wounded, led by Sergeant Phu, successfully repulsed several VC attempts to take the hill when the battalion was in Xuan Loc and Baria on the first night of Tet.
Two weeks prior to my joining the battalion, the 52d had successfully broken a major VC ambush of the 11th ACR along QL 20, North and West of Xuan Loc. From then on, the 11th ACR habitually asked for the Rangers and we became their light infantry. This was a great relationship because the Rangers knew in their hearts if they got in trouble, the Cav would always move mountains to get to them and would provide the artillery and air support that could be expected had they been American troops. This provided a huge boost of confidence and I believe, was a major cause for the very aggressive combat actions of the battalion. It was certainly a major factor in our mental attitude at Suoi Long.
On a field operation in May, we were laagered in an area known as the Chinese Farms when a Cav helicopter landed. It was Col Cobb, the 11th ACR Regimental Commander, who presented Maj Hiep and our senior advisor, Captain Al Shine, with two brand new M60 machine guns, the only ones we had. Hiep gave them to the best machine gunners in the battalion-two Montagnards with gold front teeth, both of which smoked a small pipe. I shall never forget the image over my right shoulder of one of those gunners at Suoi Long calmly working off 3 round bursts with the pipe in his mouth as if he were at a Ft Benning gunnery range. The gunner keyed on the sound of the VC commanders blowing whistles and on more than one occasion I heard the whistle abruptly ingested as the M60 rounds impacted. These two guns plus the very few M16's in the battalion were to have a decisive early effect at Suoi Long. (Hiep and Tot's bodyguards and myself as well as some other soldiers had M16's. Months after the battle, we were told that at the initial contact, the VC commander believed we were a new regiment as he hadn't heard Vietnamese with M16's before-reportedly this caused him to be more cautious with us than he otherwise might have been).
III. THE BEGINNING
On the 22d of June, the 52d BDQ was on rest at Ranger Hill after almost a month in the field. Normally, we could expect one or two week's rest before going back to the field. However, on this day, three days after standdown, Cpt Shine, the Senior Advisor was called to MAVC compound and briefed on an immediate operation for the 52d. The 18th Div CG, who exercised tactical control of the 52d, told Hiep that a VC "deserter" had told the Intelligence Officer (G2-Phong Nhi), that he had been part of a construction unit that was building a company size basecamp along the Dong Nai River to receive a new VC unit. Hiep's mission was to take the deserter, find the basecamp and destroy it. We would conduct an air assault the following day, the 23d, and be reinforced by the 11th ACR and possibly the 48th Regiment of the 18th. However, we were told that probably no reinforcements would be needed.
IV. DAY ONE
Hiep organized the Battalion into two columns for movement in the jungle. One half of the battalion and the deserter would move with him and the other with myself and Captain Tot would move parallel about 100 meters apart. (The "deserter" stayed with us throughout the fight and returned unscathed to Xuan Loc). Cpt Shine and "Elephant," the US RTO, would move with Hiep, I and SFC Swyers, would move with the XO, Cpt Tot. SFC Swyers was a veteran of the Korean War and gave me a lot of confidence as this was my first real combat operation. During the action, Swyers was very cool and his experience came through helping hold the Rangers together and organizing our constantly changing defense.
We were trucked to the pickup zone, which was very hot and exposed. Accompanying us was the 52d Vietnamese Reconnaissance Company-no relation. They were armed with M1 Garand rifles. The Rangers assembled in the edge of a rubber plantation (I believe it was Don Dien de Michelin) and waited for the helicopters. Eventually, around 1500, they began to arrive in mass. Soon, more than 40 UHIH's arrived from all over, including the Kiwi's from the New Zealand (or Australia) unit at Nui Dat. I had never seen so many lift ships before. By 1600, we were loaded on the helicopters waiting for the air strikes and artillery. I recall that moment. We were in the direct sunlight, the heat was stifling and the rotor blades were churning dust and diesel fuel over us. We were all exhausted, physically and mentally, by the time the birds lifted off.
The fresh air was a relief once aloft and we could see immediately where we were going. Artillery was going off, tactical air strikes were underway and small helicopter gunships were hanging on the periphery ducking in an out between strikes to make gun runs. I could see our LZ, the Dong Nai River, Nui Ba Den Mountain and the vast expanse of War Zone D as if it were a giant IMAX movie screen. The adrenalin that normally accompanied such a dramatic shift in environment kicked in.
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 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. 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 gunline 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 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 51cal 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 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 midnite, 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 regiments 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 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 ignitors 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 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.
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 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 borne of desperation and would require adegree 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 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 5 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. 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 and move behind 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 Canberra's 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 focussed. 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 last 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 US) refused to talk to their US 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 ground literally roll toward me in successive waves as the bomb shock moved the earth.
The next day, the 25th, we retraced our steps 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 thoughout 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 many 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 were aware of events beyond the reach of our physical accessability. In my memory, what was happening within yards of me 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 bodybag 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. 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, 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-allegedly-they had seen both Chinese and Russian advisors. They also said the B52 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. Here, we had more casualties that month than at any other operational area other than during Tet. It was easy to understand why the Rangers developed such a fatalistic attitude. It was both essential to survival and decidedly logical.