3rd Ranger Group

The Battle of An Loc, Binh Long (2)

"Ranger Magazine, Issue 7", Tet 2003 Issue
Tap San Biet Dong Quan, So 7

Khue quoc Nguyen
Translated by Merle  Pribbenow

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       Night had just fallen, and enemy artillery fire had begun to increase.  We could hear the sound of shells rumbling through the air and the sound of explosions echoing in the area, and occasionally I could even hear the crunch of a "delayed fuse" round as it dug into the earth and then exploded.  We were most afraid of this type of round.  If our location was hit, the round would penetrate the roof of the bunker and go off inside the bunker, and no one would be left alive.  Throughout our three months at An Loc, the Operations Center was never hit directly by one of these rounds.  However, that night, as I stood watch to let Nang sleep, there was suddenly a tremendous explosion.  Smoke filled the bunker, accompanied by shouting voices and the screams of a number of soldiers who had been injured by flying shrapnel.  As the smoke dispersed and the air cleared, I anxiously felt my body, found no blood, and realized I had not been hit.  I then looked around and saw that several of the radio operators had been wounded.  Outside the door of the bunker I saw two bodies lying still and unmoving.  When I looked toward my cot where Nang had been sleeping, I saw him lying there still with a great deal of blood flowing from a wound in his chest. 

       The Ranger Group Commander had been standing next to the map-board with Major Tran trying to figure out where the enemy artillery positions were located in order to request American air strikes to silence the enemy guns.  When the smoke cleared, I saw Lt. Col. Biet and Major Tran, both holding their arms, running into the bunker next door where the American advisors were.  I quickly called for the medics.  Doctor Canh, the Group's Chief Medical Officer, was very active and dedicated.  With no fear of enemy shells, he ran back and forth examining the wounded.  Those who he decided were severely wounded he had carried to the medical aid bunker immediately.

       Lt. Col. Biet and Major Tran had again received light arm wounds.  After the Chief Medic, a senior sergeant, Lt. Col. Biet ordered the first sergeant commanding the deserter labor force ["lao cong dao binh" - a ARVN force made up of convicted deserters who had been sentenced to perform heavy manual labor/construction at front-line positions] to immediately rebuild the corner of the Operations Center bunker that had been hit (the round that hit the bunker was determined to be a 122mm rocket).  Dr. Canh told me that Captain Nang was in extremely critical condition.  He needed to be evacuated immediately because he had many pieces of shrapnel in his chest, with some very close to his heart, and he was in danger of dying.  There were also about four or five NCOs and privates who would be priority subjects for evacuation if we could get an evacuation flight in.

       When I heard of the condition of Captain Nang, I was troubled, because he was sleeping where I should have been, and he had been hit instead of me.  However, I also knew that I had been working in his place at the moment that the ill-fated rocket crashed into the Group Operations Center.  Once again I had narrowly escaped death. I t was not yet my time to die.  I gave a silent prayer of thanks to Buddha.  I then asked the Senior American Advisor if we could request a special medical evacuation flight.  He said he would try to get one, because he had seen that both the Group Commander and the Chief of the S-3 Section had been wounded.  He looked at me with a look of worry and concern.  I quickly corrected his misimpression: both the senior officers (the Group Commander and the S-3 Chief) were remaining at their posts, I told him, and I pointed to where they were sitting nearby.  I told him that we would only be evacuating the seriously wounded, a total of five people, including Captain Nang.  Captain Nang was an old friend, and we went out to relax and carouse together when on leave, together with "Scarface" Manh, "Little" Quang, and my Section Chief, "Whisters" (Major Tran).  We had spent long nights drinking and celebrating when the entire Group was in the rear and recuperating.  I will never forget those pleasant and happy occasions.

       I looked at Nang lying there in pain, but there was nothing I could do for him.  However, Dr. Canh was taking good care of him.  Captain Nang had fought in countless battles before, and he was a man with many battle scars who was a veteran of numerous savage battles.  However, this was the most serious wound he had ever suffered, and just when he was about to be discharged and make a joyful return to his family, he was now in desperate condition, hovering between life and death.

       Order was quickly restored in the Corps Headquarters after the rocket hit, and Lt. Col. Biet continued to stand watch next to the radios, listening to the situation reports from each of his subordinate units.  At the same time, he appeared to be very concerned about Captain Nang, and I noticed him occasionally glancing over toward the place where Captain Nang lay in the corner of the Operations Center.  He also directed his battalions to make sure that their personnel were alert and kept careful watch in front of their positions in case the enemy decided to launch a powerful ground assault after these ferocious artillery barrages.

       I do not know how he did it, but the next morning the American advisor told me to prepare for a special medical evacuation flight, a helicopter that would take out the most seriously wounded.  Just a few minutes later I saw a white helicopter flash in from the east at tree-top level and land quickly at the helipad next to the Ranger Group Headquarters.  The medical section had transported all the seriously wounded out to wait, so the helicopter was able to load them quickly.  Just a minute later, the evacuation helicopter took off and disappeared to the southeast.  Only then was my mind at ease, and I was confident that Nang would escape death one more time.

       In spite of the severity of his wounds, when he was carried past me to be evacuated, he tried to turn to look at me, apparently to thank me.  I waved to him, thinking to myself that I had luckily escaped danger because he had taken the blow that had been meant for me.

       In late April 1972, after waves of constant heavy artillery barrages that sometimes totaled more than 10,000 rounds a day, the enemy sent in tanks to try to overrun An Loc.  Enemy tanks, both T-54s and PT-76s, entered the city from every direction.  Our soldiers were terrified when they first saw the enemy tanks rumbling toward them, their guns firing in all directions and their engines so loud they hurt our ears.  Then, however, the first unit to encounter the tanks, an RF unit subordinate to province headquarters, destroyed a tank on the southwestern perimeter of the city using an M-72, a light rocket launcher that every man carried on his back.  The news of the success spread, and soldiers from all units took turns firing M-72s to knock out the enemy tanks.  The number of enemy tanks reported destroyed by our subordinate battalions grew every day.  We were told that when enemy tanks were hit and tried to escape through the city out soldiers ambushed or even chased them to stop and destroy them.  I think that this scene would make a wonderful movie.

       As for our units on the city's outer perimeter, they reported the positions of enemy tanks located outside our outer perimeter to Group headquarters so that the Group could report their locations to aircraft for air strikes.  On these occasions, U.S. OV-10 observation aircraft were able to clearly see the enemy tanks and direct U.S. Air Force aircraft in to bomb the enemy tanks very accurately as they drove into the city, especially those coming in from northeast of Quan Loi or those coming from the southwest up from Xa Cam.

       We later learned that a large number of these tanks were destroyed by air strikes and lay strewn around the area in Quan Loi and southern Xa Cam.  According to documents we captured, the enemy tanks taking part in the attack on An Loc were from two regiments, one of which was called the 220th Tank Regiment.  According to reports from the interrogation of enemy prisoners, these two tank regiments had been ordered to drive into An Loc to help occupy it, because they thought that An Loc had already fallen after the heavy artillery attacks.  They drove arrogantly straight into the city with no accompanying infantry anywhere in sight. When our forces began firing at and destroying the tanks, the tank crews panicked and drove their vehicles helter-skelter through the streets of An Loc, even crashing into civilian homes and schools.  Our soldiers were able to ambush and destroy all the tanks that penetrated into the city, an a number of tanks moving outside our outer perimeter were destroyed by U.S. and Vietnamese Air Force aircraft.

       The continuous reports of destroyed enemy tanks flowing into Ranger Group Headquarters eased our worries as we monitored the fighting over the radios in the Group's Operations Center.  When the tanks began rumbling into the city, the enemy artillery shelling stopped, so after the initial success in destroying enemy tanks with M-72 rockets, our troops were able to climb out of their bunkers and foxholes without fear to ambush and pursue the tanks to destroy even more of them.

       In the Operations Center, I was so overjoyed by the reports that enemy tanks driving down the streets of the city were being fired on and destroyed by our soldiers that I climbed up onto the top of the Operations Center to watch what was happening on the streets around the perimeter of the Ranger Group Headquarters.  Because our headquarters was located atop a rather high hill, I was able to see an enemy tank moving south along a road located just east of the Ranger Group Headquarters.  This road ran in a north-south direction up to the Binh Long Province Military Headquarters.  I quickly radioed an OV-10 to report the tank's position. A U.S. Air Force F-4 jet swooped in immediately, dropping a bomb that hit right on top of the enemy tank and set it afire.  The tank stopped moving, as it was totally destroyed.  I witnessed this whole operation with my own eyes, and it is something I will never forget.

       In addition, about ten days after our Ranger Group arrived in An Loc, 5th Division Headquarters sent down two foreign journalists, one American and one Frenchman, to do a battlefield report on our operations.  During this battle against the tanks, these two journalists eagerly went out to the battalion front lines and accompanied teams of soldiers from the 52nd and 36th Ranger battalions as they fought.  They were able to take some great photographs and film of this battle in An Loc.

       They even boldly ran along with soldiers to jump up onto the destroyed enemy tanks to search them.  They were able to recover some ivory-colored medicine pills from one of the tanks.  When they looked at the bodies of enemy crewmen, they saw that some of them had been chained to their tanks.  Later, Saigon analyzed the pills and said that they were a form of stimulant that the enemy commanders made their soldiers take before a battle.  All of these facts were printed in the world press, and the reports in the foreign press on the battle against enemy tanks in An Loc were especially bold and wonderful.

       After the attack by the enemy tanks, our group pulled in the defense lines of our units, because a large number of our soldiers had been killed or wounded by the artillery shelling and the battles against the enemy tanks, and we lost all contact with Second Lieutenant So Do's company.  Second Lieutenant Phuoc's company withdrew back toward 31st Ranger Battalion's lines to strengthen our defense line in the eastern part of the city in the area of the White Bridge along the road to Quan Loi.  36th Battalion, along the city's northern perimeter, also suffered heavy losses and what was left of the battalion withdrew back into the city to set up defensive positions in the taller buildings along the northeastern edge of the city.

       Taking advantage of the confusion and disorder in the city, the enemy occupied a portion of the northeastern part of the city, in the area of the An Loc Airfield.  During the enemy assault on the city, 31st Ranger Battalion reported that it had lost contact with one of its platoons holding a hill position near Dong Long Hill, while 52nd Battalion reported that it had lost contact with one of its outposts in the Windy Hill sector.  The troop strength of the Group's subordinate units was gradually being eroded, so the Group Commander issued an order for all units to hold the positions they were currently occupying and not to withdraw any further.  Enemy artillery fire decreased dramatically, as if the enemy was taking a rest so that he could re-deploy his forces to prepare for future ground and artillery attacks.

       Suddenly, Ranger Group Headquarters received a report that enemy forces had appeared at the Province Chieu Hoi Office and had fired into one of the battalion's units as it was moving down the street in front of the Chieu Hoi Office.  The Group Commander ordered 52nd Battalion to eliminate this enemy force as soon as possible.  This was because the Province Chieu Hoi Office was located northeast of the 5th Division Headquarters and northwest of the Ranger Group Headquarters.  The enemy was in a very threatening position and we could not allow the enemy to occupy this position for long, or it would be very dangerous for us.  Later, I learned that the Chieu Hoi Office was located in the area of responsibility of First Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu, a close friend of mine from the time we both had been platoon commanders in 52nd Ranger Battalion under Major Nguyen Hiep.  With a high spirit of responsibility, Hieu personally commanded the attack to retake the Chieu Hoi Office.  Unfortunately, a sniper located inside the province Chieu Hoi Office shot him in the head, and he fell deal right in front of the Chieu Hoi Office.  We were not able to recover his body until after we recaptured the Chieu Hoi Office.

       When they learned that their commander had been killed, the soldiers in Hieu's company became confused and disorganized.  In addition, the enemy began to fire on them very heavily with all types of weapons, including medium machineguns and M-79s, causing Hieu's company to bunch up and stop in the houses across the street from the Chieu Hoi Office.  The soldiers were pinned down, and if they tried to move an inch, they were fired on by the enemy.  By late afternoon 52nd Ranger Battalion still had not been able to eliminate this enemy pocket of resistance, so the Group Commander ordered 52nd Battalion to pull its company back a little bit to get out of range of the enemy's M-79s.  Meanwhile the Group Commander ordered 31st Ranger Batallion to send one of its companies in to take over the attack on the Chieu Hoi Office, and he told them to eliminate the enemy position before nightfall.

       Later, I learned that the company from 31st Ranger Batallion that was ordered to retake the Chieu Hoi Office was Second Lieutenant Phuoc's company, which had been defending the area of the White Bridge on the road out to Quan Loi.  The company moved to the area of the Chieu Hoi Office to attack the target.  Phuoc's company had suffered heavy casualties during the battle against the enemy tanks and from the heavy enemy artillery barrages, and it did not have very many men left.  Phuoc was a courageous, stubborn company commander and a good tactician.  However, his aggressiveness cost him a lot of men, so by this time his company was down to only a little more than 20 effective fighting soldiers.  When he received the order, he had to personally lead his troops forward to take the objective.

       Phuoc's company was stopped in block of houses across the street from the Chieu Hoi Office, the same place the company from 52nd Battalion had been stopped.  By this time, our forces had the Chieu Hoi Office surrounded, so no one could go in or out, and both sides were pinned down in that location.  Finally, 31st Ranger Battalion requested helicopter gunship support in order to take the objective.  The Group forwarded the request to Division, and a short time later Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) helicopter gunships arrived and requested that our troops fire a white smoke flare to confirm the location of friendly forces.  However, when they fired the smoke flares, the helicopters informed us that they could not fire because friendly troops were too close to the enemy position.  The Group then used an OV-10 to guide fighters in at low level after again releasing smoke to mark friendly positions.  However, the fighters could not attack either, because after the smoke was released, the pilots could not see the target because the wind too strong and there was too much smoke, so smoke completely obscured the target.  The fighters were finally forced to turn around and return to their base.

       It was now almost nightfall, and the Group Commander was trying to figure out another way to eliminate this dangerous "bone" in the Group's throat.  Suddenly, I heard booms in the distance and recognized them as the noise from 105mm rounds being fired from an AC-130.  I knew that the Americans called this kind of aircraft the "Specter."  I immediately whispered to Major Tran, the Chief of the S-3 Section, that he would suggest to Lt. Col. Biet that he ask the division for this type of aircraft to eliminate the enemy position.

       Lt. Col. Biet told me to talk to our senior American Advisor about this immediately.  Just as the last light faded, the American advisor told me that division had approved our request.  The Specter that I had heard, which had been supporting 8th Infantry Regiment, was now on its way back to its base, but another one was on its way to the area, and our Ranger Group would receive first priority in its use.  The Group Commander was very pleased when I informed him of this.  We both were certain that the Specter would be able to deal with this tiny but very troublesome target, because we knew that the Specter was able to fire extremely accurately at night using infrared sights.  However, the Spector was always directed to the target by an OV-10 observation aircraft.

       After a short wait, our American advisor was able to make radio contact with the OV-10 and directed it to the target.   The target was very heavily fortified, consisting of a number of strong underground bunkers built of concrete.  For some reason, each of the government offices in An Loc had concrete underground bunkers covered with sheets of tin that in turn had layer upon layer of sandbags of top.  This was also the case at the Chieu Hoi Office.  In addition, the office was located on high ground with good fields of vision all around, so it would be very difficult for infantry to take the position unless they had air support.

       When the OV-10 reached the target area, the American advisor turned the OV-10 over to me.  I used the call-sign "Tiger 3 Alpha," the Group's call sign assigned to us by 5th Division. The OV-10 used call-sign "Chico 55."  The Group Commander ordered me to direct the OV-10 and the Specter to attack the target under target spotting provided by the company commander, Lt. Phuoc.

       For that reason, Phuoc talked directly to me over the radio to direct the OV-10 and the Spector in attacking the target.  I was able to establish radio contact with the OV-10 using my call-sign.  Radio communications with Chico 55 were good, and I gave the OV-10 targeting instructions using as our identification point the large, round central town square that was clearly marked on all the maps of the city that III Corps Headquarters issued to the units being sent into An Loc and that were also issued to all U.S. and Vietnamese air support units.  In addition, they also used a target coordinate code that was pre-marked on our maps of the city and the surrounding area.

       The OV-10 spotted the round town square, and I told the pilot that the target was located a little over 50 meters west of the square.  I asked him to fire a smoke rocket at the target.  The OV-10 spotted the target immediately at fired a rocket.  I asked Phuoc where the smoke rocket had landed, and Phuoc told me to adjust ten meters west and five meters south of the smoke rocket.  With the radio handset in my right hand, I reported this to the OV-10, and he immediately fired another white smoke rocket.  Meanwhile, from the radio handset in my left hand, I heard Phuoc shouting with glee, saying that the rocket was exactly on target and requesting fire for effect.  Speaking into my ground-to-air readio, I said, "Right on target. Go ahead and blow it up."  I immediately heard the sound of explosions from the direction of the Chieu Hoi Office.  Phuoc screamed and shouted to continue firing.  I called over the radio, "Right on the money!  Go on!" I heard a string of explosions, one right after another, as if someone was pounding on a drum. It sounded great!  After more than ten explosions, Phuoc reported that the shells had caved in the tops of the bunkers at the Chieu Hoi Office compound.

       This all happened in the middle of a heavy rainstorm, and large quantities of water flooded into the collapsed enemy positions.  A few frightened enemy soldiers ran out in a panic, gasping for breath from the smoke of the cannon round explosions and because they were being drowned by the heavy rain.  These enemy troops were all eliminated by Phuoc's company after I asked the OV-10 to cease firing to let Phuoc's company finish them off.  After Phuoc and his men advanced into the objective and policed up the area, Phuoc reported that he counted more than ten enemy bodies, killed both by the fire from the Specter and by the fire of his own men.  We captured one medium water-cooled machinegun, two M-79s, and six AK-47s.   However, we captured a large quantity of ammunition, especially M-79 ammunition, because a pallet of parachuted supplies had fallen into the Chieu Hoi compound, so the enemy had been able to recover both food rations and M-79 rounds for their own use.

       Enemy resistance at the Chieu Hoi Office was eliminated before 11:00 that night.  Group Headquarters reported this to Division Headquarters, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief because we no longer had to fear that the enemy might penetrate into our position.  I think that Division Headquarters felt the same way, because a little over half an hour later, Colonel Le Nguyen Vy, wearing a flack jacket and a steel helmet and accompanied by a second lieutenant, visited the Group Headquarters to commend the Group for its performance.  Looking at me happily, he said that he had monitored my direction of the OV-10 and the Specter during the attack on the target.  He said that the Division Commander was very pleased with my performance.  This commendation made my chest swell with pride. Then he said, "keep on trying," and asked me if I could continue to take it [the battle]. I replied, "We can take it, Colonel.  Don't worry."  He then went out to 31st Ranger Battalion's front lines in the White Bridge sector along the road to Quan Loi.  There he witnessed the spirit of solidarity between the soldiers and civilians of our country, as the civilian residents of that section of the city and the soldiers of 31st Ranger Battalion supported and cared for one another.

       His mind at ease, he returned to his headquarters.  From there he radioed the Group to commend the spirit of discipline he had witnessed among the officers and men of our Ranger Group and said that he did not believe any of the baseless, evil-intentioned rumors to the contrary that were being spread about the Rangers.

       During the battle to retake the Chieu Hoi Office I lost a dear comrade-in-arms, a courageous friend who had recorded many successes for the 52nd Ranger Battalion from the time he was a platoon commander up through his time as company commander, fighting during operations around the outskirts of Saigon and across the border in Cambodia.  This friend was First Lieutenant Nguyen Van Hieu, a graduate of Class 24 of the Thu Duc Officer's School.  We had been very close ever since I was first assigned to 52nd Ranger Battalion as a platoon commander.  After I transferred back to Group Headquarters we seldom saw one another, because Hieu's company was always off on operations and often stationed at locations far from Group Headquarters.  We were only able to see one another if we both had leave at the same time, but that seldom happened.  Hieu's death left me with a lot of memories of our friendship that are hard to forget, especially memories of the time when 52nd Ranger Group was operating around the outskirts of Saigon, in the Cat Lai and Lai Thieu area.  In 1968 and 1969 we saw each other a lot and went out to relax together often, because our two platoons were stationed not far from one another. My heart was troubled when I thought of Hieu, as if I had lost some valuable part of myself.

       As May 1972 began, the enemy continued harassment artillery shelling of An Loc to disrupt our activities, using all types of artillery, large and small, and also using 122mm rockets.  However, all our units had learned a great deal from the enemy's recent artillery and tank attacks.

       They had also witnessed the effective air support provided by our aircraft, and especially by the U.S. Air Force, which provided extremely precise and highly effective air strikes and which always arrived quickly in the support area.  This strengthened the confidence and the endurance of our soldiers.

       One dark night, I was on duty in the Group Headquarters Operations Center when I heard Major Lac, the Commander of 36th Ranger Battalion, calling to speak to me on the radio.  I picked up the receiver and answered him instantly.  Major Lac told me that, just after nightfall, he, his assistant battalion S-3 officer (a second lieutenant), and a radio operation had crawled into an enemy tank with a twin-barreled gun turret (two enormous silver-colored gun barrels) [Translator's Note: He is referring to a twin-barreled 57mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.] The tank had been hit by our troops and had run into a bomb crater while trying to escape. Its two long gun barrels had driven deep into the earth on the side of the bomb crater and the gun was stuck there. Major Lac said that he had found a number of very important military and communications documents aboard the tank. In addition, he had dismantled a radio on the enemy tank to bring back with him. However, when the three men tried to crawl out of the bomb crater to return to his lines, enemy troops had fired on them heavily, and they could not get out of the bomb crater. Major Lac asked me not to inform "Oldest Brother" [Lt. Col. Biet, the Group Commander] and requested that I ask our American advisor for Specter or Stinger fire support to cover their return.  I agreed.

       After thinking for a moment, I reported what had happened to the Chief of the S-3 Section and to Lt. Col. Biet, the Group Commander himself.  Lt. Col. Biet let out a string of curses under his breath, then ordered me to inform our American advisor what had happened and to tell him to request Specter air support for Major Lac.

        At the same time, on the Group Commander's orders, Major Tran reported to Division Headquarters that 36th Battalion was in heavy contact with enemy forces in the area northeast of the Chinese School in the northeastern portion of the city, immediately facing the area currently under enemy control.  He told Major Tran to ask the Division for Specter air support.  Division informed us that Specter had completed his mission time and had returned to base.  They said that the only thing available was a Stinger, which was on its way to our area.  Lt. Col. Biet heard this and nodded his head.  Understanding what his commander meant, Major Tran requested that Division assign our Ranger Group priority for use of this Stinger to support 36th Battalion.  Division approved our request, and the American advisors on both sides exchanged call-signs and radio frequencies for contacting the OV-10 and the Stinger assigned to the area.  The American advisor then gave me the call-sign and the radio frequency for the OV-10 and the Stinger.  This call-sign was Sundog 7, while my call-sign was still Tiger 3 Alpha.  I was ordered to guide the Ov-10 and the Stinger to the target (after we tested our radios and were able to read one another 5 by 5).

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