THE FORTRESS

By Tran-Thy-Van


        It was Jackson base, built by the U.S. Armed Forces located at the top of a mountain nearly one thousand meters above the sea level and about twenty five kilometers west of My Chanh, Hue.  The Republic of Vietnam Rangers named it ‘The tip of the Winter’.  After the retreat of the RVN Armed Forces from Quang Tri province, one company of the 304th NVA division held Jackson to control the western plateau.  From this strong hold, the enemy also controlled the movement of the RVN on National Highway 1.

        By the end of June 1972, in preparing for the counter-offensive toward Quang-Tri.  The fortress must had been retaken. First, the 6th regiment of the 2nd Infantry from Quang-Ngai sent one battalion to tackle Jackson unsuccessful.  Second, a platoon of Marines was brought in by Chinook helicopter CH-47, the NVA shot down the helicopter and my company was ordered to search and to recover the bodies.  Half month later, First Lt. Nguyen-Van-Hoe courageously led his 4th company of the 39th rangers attacked the fortress.  This company took a small part of Jackson then had to retreat, lieutenant Hoe was sent to Saigon for the ‘Excellence Soldiers’ decoration.  He was promoted to a captain and a trip to Taipei. But Jackson was still Jackson. Then the 21st rangers took turn, Maj. Quach Thuong the battalion commander sent two companies, the 2nd led by first lieutenant Quach-An (later was seriously wounded in the area of Ba-Gia, Quang-Ngai province then died at the hospital) and the 4th led by Capt. Do-Van-Nai.  Both companies could not do much, lost many men from enemy artillery.  July 1972, the 21st rangers were positioned along National Highway 1 in the south bank of My-Chanh river.  In the afternoon, Maj. Quach-Thuong called four company commanders to a meeting, after a briefing about that tough target, the battalion commander turned to me and said.

        - Order from Gen. Truong (Ngo-Quang-Truong newly commander of the I-Corps) that we must take Jackson at all costs. Tomorrow, at 6am your company leads the way for the attack. O.K.?

        - Who follows me (1st company) ?

        - That’s it! Only you!

        After the meeting, I returned to my company and told only Lt. Cat the XO to prepare secretly for the mission.  Early next morning, the 1st company marched for three hours straight to the foot of the Co-Bi mountain.  After crossing the first hill, we found a road which led to Jackson used by American before departure.  I gave order to stop for cooking meal and get water (Vietnamese soldiers had to carry rice in their rucksacks and cook meals for themselves). then I told everyone about the mission and what to expect.

        I directed the commando team to lead the way.  This special team was created and trained by myself, it had eleven experience and courageous men.  The platoons and company’s commanding post followed, everyone were ready to fight.  Formed a single line, the rangers marched quietly on the ascending road to heaven.  The 1st company moved about three kilometers when they reached a point where there were two steep slopes on the sides of the road. An NVA blocking squad opened fires on the rangers killed one and wounded two.  The commando team fell back and the rangers took positions. I reported back to the battalion’s HQ and requested for artillery support.  The point which I plotted was to close, less than 200m to our own position, therefore the artillery coordinating officer refused for safety reason.  I insisted that it was the best way to remove enemy’s blockages then I would made the adjustment for pin-point accuracy.  The rangers of the 1st company continued to march, they encountered with the enemy blockages every day and they had no-choice but putting them out of action.  Some blockages were too tough, the rangers had to move around to the other side of the hill then turned back to attack from behind.  They had to remove one by one blockage that way and day after day on their way to Jackson base..  Wounded men and weapons captured were carried back to a safer place for helicopter to pick up..  After more than two weeks on the path, my company reached the eastern ridge of the target and finding way to ‘swallow’ it.  Surrounding with hills and thick canopy of the forest, through binocular Jackson appeared with trenches and machine gun bunkers.  In the north, there was a lower hill connected to Jackson like a saddle. The American already cleared the hill top, not a single bush remained.  On the map, Jackson and the northern hill looked like a beak.

        I decided to send the commando team to the beak for a quick raid.  The result was five NVA troops killed with five AK-47 rifles.  The whole company moved into the beak, one soldier handed me a captured map.  It was belong to 1st Lt. Hoe (4/39th Ranger mentioned above) that proved the 4th company of the 39th battalion only reached to this point.  Liked other units before, the men of the 1st company had no-time to dig their fox-holes, they were under heavily artillery bombardment for ten minutes, but luckily a few men were wounded.

        It was around noon, the sun burned the treeless hilltop and none of our canteens had a drop of water remained.  We had no choice but reusing the urine. Meanwhile, I had been thinking, weighting the situation . .. We already rode on the back of the tiger. .. From this standing point, we must attacked Jackson immediately, and their trenches, defensive positions must had been taken.. .. If we could not achieved the result before the sunset then .. . the battle would had been over.  They would came out after dark to retaliate.

        Jackson was built like a square about half-size of a football field with four high machine gun bunkers at the four corners.  At the center of the fortress, there were three or four more bunkers, probably communication center or the TOC.  The communist troops were waiting, they were surprised why those stubborn rangers did not retreat like before after the warning from artillery bombardment.. Major Thuong the commander of the 21st and Col. Tran-Kim-Dai commander of the 1st ranger group called to check the situation.  The two top officers probably did not believe that we came to that close.. . From the start until that moment, my company had lost more than ten men and the number got below one hundred.  The commando team also had four out of eleven men rendezvoused with uncle Ho (killed).

        I  was informed that the forward headquarters of the 1st group and the 21st ranger already moved into the first series of hills.  That move closer to us made me felt encouraged. Major Thuong asked

        - Now! Viet-Quoc (my calling sign)  What do you think?  Try harder to get it over then the helicopters will come in to bring you and your men back to Da-Nang for a leave. Son-Linh (Col. Dai) is getting anxious..

        - Trung-Duong! (Maj. Thuong) don’t worry!  We’re going to use tear gas grenades. Y ou could hear my men shooting claymores to destroy the mine field.  I’ll wait for the wind blowing toward inside of Jackson then will swing the fist.  We run out of drinking water .. .use other instead.

        - O.K.  Try the best! The 4th company will bring you guys water.  What’s about the road?

        - It’s tough! Need mine detector.  When we go, Trung-Duong call artillery to ‘drop’ on the southwestern slope.  It is easy to walk and they might use it for counter-attacking.

        I planed to deploy the commando team to attack the main gate then the company followed.  When penetrated inside, we attacked with three spear-heads, left, right and through the center of their HQ.  I called the officers and the sergeant leader of the commando team to come over to receive order and to put on gas masks.  We were going to ‘Do or Die’ with the NVA regular. The one came out alive was the victor.

        The wind started blowing, every men of the 1st company held their breaths.  Lieutenant Nguyen-Thuan-Cat lined up his men and the 60mm mortar then opened fires together with twenty tear gas grenades thrown forward Jackson.  As predicted, the wind blew tear gas toward enemy positions inside the fortress.  Could not suffered the tear gas, the NVA got out of their under ground trench and ran, the ranger quickly gunned down two.  I directed the men to throw twenty more tear gas grenades and to go forward. All the rangers scream their battle cry ‘Rangers! Kill .. . Rangers! Kill’ (Biet-Dong-Quan! Sat!).  The commando team stormed through the gate quickly then Vinh brought his M-60 machine gun in and laid on the top of a bunker.  The M-60 sprayed bullets from left to right to support three riffle platoons in the assault.  The 1st platoon spear-headed toward the left, the 2nd to the right flank and the 3rd ran straight toward the enemy HQ at the center. At that moment, all the rangers followed their instinct reaction without the order from their officers.  All the sounds of grenade’s explosions, gun fire and the screams of the rangers ‘Rangers! Kill.. .’ de-moralized the enemy and made them fear.

        Some rangers got hits, lied on the ground but we could not stop the attack. I directed 1st and 2nd platoons to use M-72 rocket launchers to destroy the bunkers at the corners of the fortress.  The 2nd platoon was blasted back by a machine gun inside, I called Vinh to bring the M-60 in to cover for the 2nd platoon, other two men ran to help him with strings of machine gun bullets.  Suddenly, the 60mm mortar team got hit by RPG B-40 rocket, Nhan fell down.  I ran to his side pulled him into a taken bunker.  The enemy artillery started shelling on the hill, inside the bunker, Nhan, me and two radios men lied on top of the dead NVA troops and I smelled the stinky of blood.  One NVA troop got hit in the head, the brain and blood splat on the bunker wall. Our 105mm shells still fell on the southwestern slope, I called back to the battalion headquarters

        - They’re shelling on our positions!  Shut them down at the old addresses (suspected NVA 82mm mortars coordinates).  We already got inside Jackson, and are destroying the bunkers one by one. Bombard the outer perimeter for us.  Don’t let them come in to reinforce for Jackson.

        - Will take care of that!  Artillery is firing on the south!

        - Trung Duong! (Maj. Thuong) Smash the beak also!

        Meanwhile artillery of both sides exploded on Jackson and on the beak, from the internal frequency radio, all platoons requested for medics.  I could not do anything but told the platoon leaders trying to hang on and regroup.  The rangers were scattered everywhere in the fortress on the hill top, dead, wounded, or alive. Waiting for the bombardment halted, I got out of the bunker and directed the men to resume the attack ‘Destroy and kill any enemy’.  At that moment, I realized that we didn’t have enough men to capture and held prisoners.

        The third platoon reported destroying the last bunker in the south. I ordered all platoons to stay and hold positions as where they were.  The commando team and the company’s CP held the south perimeter. Each ranger must also held a captured AK-47 assault riffle, we were running out of our ammunition.  We carried our dead and wounded to the center of the fortress for heli-evacuation. The radio operator handed me the hand set

        - I reported the preliminary result to the battalion and Trung Duong (Maj. Thuong) wants to talk to you.

        - Viet Quoc (me) listening! I replied.

        - Son Linh (group commander) and me watched the action through the binoculars.  You are number one! Raise a flag and report the result accurately!  Son Ling will fly in to bring what you and the men need.

        A helicopter appeared in the sky. It circled above Jackson but afraid to land, someone on board threw down a cartoon of cigarettes ‘Lucky Strike’ .. . Was it worth? Another squadron of three helicopters landed quickly, brought us water then picked up our casualties and captured weapons.

        We lost 8 men, 16 wounded in taking the fortress Jackson. From the start (17 days), my company lost total 14 men, 24 wounded.  We put 42 enemy out of action, captured 46 weapon included one 82mm mortar.

        Dallas, Texas Oct. 10th 1997

        Compiled and translated by

        Hieu D. Vu


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