Thursday, September 2, 2010

From the Pages - Search and Destroy

Recognized as the U.S. Army's most battle-honored unit, the 1/1 Cav furthered their stellar reputation in combat during their tenure in Vietnam. An integral outfit in General Westmoreland's war of attrition, the 1/1 Cav was recognized as one of the most aggressive and professional outfits in the entire American military -- earning a Medal of Honor, four Distinguished Service Crosses, and thousands of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts.

In the following exclusive excerpt from Search and Destroy:The Story of an Armored Cavalry Squadron in Viet Nam, late-author Keith Nolan describes the 1/1 Cav's experiences during Tết from January–February 1968.
The war usually shut down during Tết, a holiday of great religious and familial significance that ushers in the Lunar New Year. In this instance, General Westmoreland canceled the holiday cease-fire in I Corps on January 29, concerned as he was about the encirclement of the marines at Khe Sanh in the northwest corner of the country: the view at MACV was that the communists, pushed to the hinterlands and on the verge of defeat, were planning in their desperation a spectacular recreation of the siege of Diện Biên Phu.

Unbeknownst to Westmoreland, the communists hoped not only to take Khe Sanh—presuming that the siege was not simply a ruse—but had been planning since the summer of ’67 to use the 1968 Tết cease-fire as cover for an unprecedented wave of attacks designed to topple the regime in Sài Gòn. The onslaught would be known to a shocked world as the Tết Offensive.

Emerging from the jungle, the enemy planned to strike for the first time the urban centers of the country and win the war in a single decisive moment: surely, the ARVN would shatter under the blow of a hundred sledgehammers striking a hundred towns and cities, the urban masses would rally to the revolution, the government would fall, and the United States would be left with no option but to negotiate a withdrawal from South Việt Nam.

Jumping the gun, certain enemy units attacked five cities in the northern part of the country shortly after midnight on January 30, the first day of Tết, and a full twenty-four hours before the offensive was scheduled to begin. Other, smaller flare-ups included a brief attack on Thăng Bình ten kilometers northwest of Hill 29 on Highway 1. Government troops drove off the VC even before a reaction force arrived from C Troop of the 1-1 Cavalry. Elsewhere, the festivities began on schedule with feasts and firecrackers. At the time, half of Sài Gòn’s army was home on leave.

Now commanded by Capt. Walter Reed, B Troop started down the highway from Hill 29 the first morning of Tết, then rolled into a firefight after turning east on the dirt road to Vân An: a government soldier ran down the road toward the lead platoon, urgently shouting, “VC, VC, VC!” Figures streamed from the north side of the village, heading to a wood line along the dikes of a waterlogged paddy. “We opened up on ’em from the road,” notes Ron Decktor, “then we did a left face and started off across the paddies after these guys.”

Exultant at catching the enemy in the open, Staff Sergeant Bouche would describe sitting behind his .50 and laughing as he “blew this one person away. I was just taking pieces at a time. He kept getting up—but it wasn’t a him—it was really a her. I didn’t know till I went past the body.” Captain Reed sent one platoon to block the enemy’s retreat, even as the Blue Ghosts went to work around Vân An. The results: eighteen detainees and a thirty-six body count. Only one weapon was captured, however, and almost all the prisoners soon released as “innocent civilians.” The whole thing had been a mistake, says Decktor: “We killed a bunch of ’em, but it ended up that they were mostly civilians [trying to flee the enemy attack on Vân An]. There was nothing we could do at that point, so we went back to the road, and found an ARVN who had been shot through the stomach. I tried to call in a medevac, but they said they wouldn’t send a chopper out for an ARVN—so he just laid there and died.”

Ken Bouche makes no mention of dead civilians when describing the incident at Vân An to an outsider. The incident was nonetheless something of a tipping point for him. Having been wounded twice, and with two valor awards pending for his actions in previous firefights, he was reassigned off the line soon afterward. “I sat down, and I bawled like a baby,” recalls Bouche, “because I realized how sick I had become: when you can shoot another person and laugh while you’re doing it, you’re sick. You’re not human when you’re in combat. Human life means nothing to you anymore—but if you didn’t have that attitude, you wouldn’t have made it back home.”
Westmoreland canceled the cease-fire altogether on January 30 in recognition of the fighting in I and II Corps, and issued a “maximum alert” to all U.S. units, a relatively routine step taken in anticipation of an enemy show of strength for propaganda purposes, not an all-out, win-the-war offensive. “[T]he Viet Cong surprised us,” Brig. Gen. John Chaisson of the MACV staff candidly informed the press during Tết. “I’ve got to give ’em credit for having engineered and planned a very successful offensive, [at least] in its initial phases. It was surprisingly well-coordinated, it was surprisingly intensive.”
Though the incident does not appear in the logs, Wayne Byrd describes how an enemy unit, marching on Tam Kỳ, attempted to bypass the bridge on which three tanks were out posted from the 2nd Platoon of A Troop. “We could hear them calling cadence, and sloshing through the paddies,” says Byrd, who wondered if the VC were pumped up on narcotics, oblivious as they were to the tanks silhouetted against the night sky. Speaking in a whisper, the senior NCO said that on the count of three, each tank was to start its engine, flip on its searchlight to blind the bad guys, and open fire. “The range was about a hundred meters,” notes Byrd. “My tank fired three canister rounds. The others fired four apiece. We broke ’em up. We got a body count up in the fifties.”

In anticipation of a possible attack, the 1st Platoon of C Troop secured the rectangle-shaped refueling point and supply depot that faced Highway 1 on the northwest edge of Tam Kỳ. Two tanks and five tracks sat at various points along the perimeter fence between bunkers occupied by crewmen from the self-propelled howitzers on site and the Seabees building a new provincial hospital. Two tracks and the platoon’s third tank had been detached to the highway bridges, otherwise out posted by militia troops, northwest of Tam Kỳ. When the attack did indeed materialize, at approximately 4 a.m. on January 31, sappers—part commando, part demolitions expert—blew up two of the bridges to impede the reaction force presumably to be dispatched from Hill 29.

Lieutenant Colonels Huáng Đình Thơ and Philip L. Bolté—province chief and his senior advisor—coordinated the city’s defense from a bunker as incoming mortar shells exploded, outgoing artillery fire thudded into the paddies across which the enemy moved toward town, and tracers were exchanged along narrow streets between the invading VC and a troop from the 4th ARVN Cavalry. “[T]he Viet Cong actually entered the province capital complex,” notes Bolté. “We even killed a couple of them in the province chief’s office.”

The scene lit by flares, the dragoons swept the rice paddy on the northwest side of the supply depot with fire, pinning down an attack force that attempted to close on the perimeter by way of a creek bed. The cavalrymen, artillerymen, and sailors shot those guerrillas who exposed themselves. In return, Sgt. Jack R. Lockridge was killed when a recoilless-rifle round slammed into his tank. The action continued after sunrise, and a jeep with a Seabee at the wheel dodged sniper fire to deliver ammunition to the M48s and ACAVs.

Failing to gain a foothold, the enemy pulled back when gunships and jet fighters began rolling in by the dawn’s early light. Even as one battle fizzled, another flared as the bridge outpost confronted a second wave of guerrillas. Staff Sergeant Durst, newly assigned as platoon sergeant for 1st Platoon, C Troop, fired canister into the enemy until Captain Brown arrived with the 3rd Platoon from Hill 29. It is unclear if the reaction force forded the streams that cut the highway or if marine engineers had hastily repaired the damaged bridges, but after linking up with Durst, Brown—to win the Silver Star—threw the firepower of ten more tanks and tracks into the enemy. One track commander, Sgt. Edgar L. Bolding, was killed by recoilless-rifle fire, but when the melee ended, Charlie Troop and the Blue Ghosts claimed a body count of thirty VC.

The 1st Platoon reported an additional fifty-seven kills and, as noted in the division log, “took map off NVA officer with plans of attack on Tam Kỳ[.] 1-1 Cav to determine if any routes of progress, assembly area[s], etc on it.” Cousland landed with Captain Donaldson, now the squadron intelligence officer, who culled through documents found on the dead and determined that they were from the 1st Main Force VC Regiment, 2nd NVA Division.

The 2nd Platoon of A Troop, sent to cut the enemy’s line of retreat, made contact below the mountains west of Tam Kỳ. Two tracks were hit by RPGs.

Gunships were diverted, medevacs requested.

The enemy was everywhere. A squad of sappers attacked the U.S. Embassy even as guerrilla battalions clashed with MPs and ARVN in the streets of Sài Gòn. Supposedly inviolate rear-echelon bases in the capital area had also come under ground attack: Long Bình, Biên Hòa Air Base, and Tân Sơn Nhất Airbase. The sedate market towns of the Mekong Delta swarmed with VC. Incoming rockets damaged and destroyed marine jet fighters at Chu Lai and ignited a spectacular explosion in one of the bomb dumps. Đà Nẵng was under attack by at least a regiment. Huế had fallen to a division…
There was a brief attack on Tam Kỳ after midnight on February 1. Part of A Troop, moving toward town, ran into an ambush in the dark: two tracks were damaged by RPGs, and five cavalrymen were wounded.

The enemy mortared Tam Kỳ during the night of February 1–2. On February 2, A Troop was ambushed again but, turning the tables by charging, racked up five kills, including a female VC. The action resulted some weeks later in the presentation of numerous Bronze Stars. In addition, Platoon Sergeant Boyd won a Silver Star for killing five enemy soldiers as he led his platoon through the ambush. Never happened, says Boyd, who was on the back of the command track that day with a .45 that remained in its holster—“If everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, a unit leader doesn’t need a weapon”—and credits the medal to an awards clerk “who read a lot of comic books.”

Though the officers got the big medals, and more of them, all ranks in the U.S. Army were well decorated in Việt Nam. How fair was the system? Platoon Sergeant Boyd had killed his share of communists, though not on the day and under the circumstances described in the citation to his Silver Star. Did it matter that the citation was incorrect in details if true in spirit? And what of the medals pinned to Doc Gaydon and two other medics for treating several troopers peppered with shrapnel: in other words, says Gaydon, for simply doing their jobs? Shouldn’t citizen-soldiers be rewarded for keeping their heads up and doing what had to be done under fire? Wasn’t it good for morale? Not according to the soldiers themselves. “The citations were filled with so much exaggeration and hyperbole, it was ridiculous,” says Max Pryor. “Ninety percent of us were draftees anyway. Who gave a shit about medals?”

The enemy attacked Thăng Bình before dawn on February 3. The action was visible to those elements of C Troop laagered nearby. “Watched a town burn,” wrote Max Pryor. “The V.C. hit it around 3:30 A.M. this morning. Just like watching the movies back home. Then in came the Artilaly [sic] and shot the hell out [of] the outer edge of the village. I don’t know how many V.C. they got but I’m sure they got quite a few. I shot one last night with a M79 gernard [sic] launcher, but couldn’t find him when it got daylight. Boy, he was sure moaning and groaning last night. I guess one of his buddys [sic] drug him off.”

The enemy attacked the refugee center in Tam Kỳ before dawn on February 4. The place went up in flames, either deliberately put to the torch by the guerrillas or as a side effect of the flares, tracers, and incoming mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades. The results were hideous in either case: seventy-one buildings destroyed, nineteen civilians wounded, twenty-five killed. Three Ruff Puffs were wounded, and, officially, nineteen bodies were left behind by the VC.

Captain Donaldson arrived shortly after the attack to speak with Lieutenant Colonel Bolté: the latest intelligence indicated a thousand enemy soldiers were poised to hit Tam Kỳ again that night. From his jeep, Donaldson noticed a middle-aged American in civilian clothes moving among the dead VC. He was presumably an advisor from the CIA station house in Tam Kỳ, which ran the local Provincial Reconnaissance Unit, wholly removed from Bolté’s control. The PRUs had a fearsome reputation: they were alternately said to be prison scum or firebrands who’d lost relatives to communist terrorism during this savage civil war. The PRUs gathered intelligence from villagers and carried out eye-for-an-eye counterterrorism against the Việt Cộng. According to legend, they were paid by the number of left ears they collected.

Which was exactly what the American in civilian clothes was doing: collecting ears. “I remember thinking, oh my gosh, look at this,” says Captain Donaldson. “I mean, this is all the myths you’ve heard about.”

The night passed uneasily but without incident.

Intelligence warnings aside, the battle for Tam Kỳ was over.

The communists having been repelled everywhere they attacked, Max Pryor wrote home that the war was as good as won: “I kinda look to see this thing come to an end in meby [sic] two mo[nths] from now. . . . Time will tell. I know one thing for sure[,] the best they got can’t whip us. We are just to[o] well supplied and have to[o] much determination to ever let it happen.”

1 comment:

  1. This is the last book by the late Keith Nolan. As ever it is a first class book and I would urge anyone with a serious interest in the Vietnam War to make sure they have a copy.