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Military Engagements of the Vietnam War [Part III]

This article is the result of reader comments following my past article, “12 Major Battles of the Vietnam War.”

There were many comments split between my Vietnam Facebook groups and following the posted article that challenged the word “Major” insisting that anytime participants were fired upon and placed in harms’ way, then in their minds,  it wasn’t just a skirmish, ambush or sniper – to them, it was a major experience.  Personally, I never knew the names of any of the Operations or battles that I had participated in.  All I know is when the shooting started, it was a battle; doesn’t matter if it lasted five minutes or sporadically for a month.

I’ve listed those battles mentioned from your comments along with notes and pictures about each one.  Due to its size, (31,000 words and 136 pages) – the equivalent of a short novel, I split the article into 3 parts so the page loads faster.  I’ve added as much detail as possible to see the “big picture” and hope it meets with your approval.  I also hope that readers find this article educational and learn more about the Vietnam War from the information provided.  Kudos to anyone able to read the entire article in one setting!

Note that these engagements are neither listed chronologically nor are they in order of importance.  They are only suggestions deemed important to mention from my readers.  They are also posted in the order that I recorded them from your notes:

Part I

Operation Prairie I-IV
Battle of Con Tien
Battle of Dong Ha
Operation Allen Brook
Operation Hump
Battle of An Loc
Operation Lam Son 719

Part II

Battle of Quang Tri Province
Battle of Ben Het Special Forces Camp
Battle of Binh Ghia
The Hill Fights
Battle of Trang Bang
Battle of Tam Quang

Part III

Operation Cedar Falls
Operation Dewey Canyon
The Cambodian Campaign
Attack on FSB Jay
Attack on FSB Illingworth
Battle of Ap Gu

Operation Cedar Falls:  Search and Destroy in the Iron Triangle

The purpose here is to deprive the Viet Cong of this area for good


Members of Co B, 2nd Bn, 503rd Abn Inf, 173rd Abn Bge move through Thanh Dien Forest on patrol in the southern section of the “Iron Triangle” during Operation “Cedar Falls.”

At dusk on October 8, 1965, barely 90 days after the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division began arriving in Vietnam, three of its infantry companies trudged out of a heavily forested area. The soldiers mounted trucks to return to their base, eagerly anticipating showers, hot food, and rest after three weeks of chasing the elusive Viet Cong. However, in the gathering darkness, shots suddenly rang out and a desperate and chaotic firefight erupted as the startled Americans poured fire at muzzle blasts coming from the dense foliage. Then, as the Viet Cong (VC) shooting gradually diminished, their mortar rounds began falling among the trucks. When it was all over, six men of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry lay dead and 40 more were wounded. At dawn the next day, no VC bodies were found, but there was evidence some had been carried away.

The vicious fight was just 30 miles north of Saigon in an 115-square-mile patch of jungle ominously known as the Iron Triangle.


The Iron Triangle was so heavily defended, forested and fortified that it would be another 15 months before there were enough U.S. troops in-country to field a force adequate to successfully assault this VC bastion. Operation Cedar Falls, the largest U.S. operation in the war to date, would have a number of significant results. It would validate the effectiveness of a new intelligence methodology; ignite disputes among U.S. military leaders; expose serious weaknesses in South Vietnam’s ability to care for refugees and the need for a better organization for U.S. pacification assistance agencies; and produce fodder for the nascent antiwar movement at home. Most critically, Cedar Falls would demonstrate that General William Westmoreland was not wholly devoted to the “big unit” war, as his detractors claimed. Also—and often overlooked—Cedar Falls directly contributed to the tepid South Vietnamese response to North Vietnam’s call for a “General Uprising” during the Tet Offensive.

At the same time, American military leaders grappled with how to deal with the Iron Triangle, a serious argument over North Vietnamese strategy roiled Hanoi. General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), had been convinced in late 1965 that his troops could not sustain the large losses they were suffering in the South against superior U.S. firepower and mobility. Through 1966, Giap pressed for a reversion to guerrilla warfare methods instead of continuing the main force struggle between his regulars and allied forces. Giap lost the argument to Hanoi’s commander in the South, General Nguyen Chi Than, who not only favored the big-unit war but also believed Southerners would join in a revolt against the Americans and their puppets in Saigon. In April 1967, Hanoi secretly directed preparations for an all-out offensive and general uprising in the South.


A member of “A” Co., 1/26th, 1st Bde, 1st Inf Div crouches near a tree while waiting for the area ahead to be cleared of mines, during Operation Cedar Falls in the Iron Triangle. (National Archives)

Operation Cedar Falls, named for the hometown of 1st Division Medal of Honor recipient Robert John Hibbs, who had been killed in March 1966, would involve a massive sweep of the Triangle by two brigades of DePuy’s division, plus an airborne brigade, elements of a cavalry regiment and an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Ranger battalion.

Meanwhile, Weyand, employing two brigades, would sweep through wooded areas west of the Saigon River and block any enemy escape attempt to avoid DePuy’s assault. Units on the sweeps were given a “VC Installations List” detailing the location, unit or office designations of all facilities, depots, communications centers and expected positions of three local force VC battalions and two separate companies. No enemy main force units were expected to be in the Iron Triangle. All of the estimated 6,000 inhabitants of the Triangle’s one village and several outlying hamlets would be assembled, screened and relocated. The plan called for the destruction of all enemy installations within a two-week period, after which the Triangle would be publicly designated a free-fire zone—where any inhabitant would be considered hostile.


Ben Suc, the Triangle’s main village of about 3,500 people, already had a martial history and unfortunate experience with political coercion. A sprawling collection of houses, rice paddies, orchards and shops, Ben Suc had been fortified as far back as the late 18th century when it was the base for operations against rebellious northern tribes. The village had been the site of an ARVN outpost until the Viet Cong overran it in 1964, executed the village chief, blocked the roads and organized the population into youth, women and farmers associations and indoctrinated them on National Liberation Front (NLF) goals and laws.

The villagers were told the Americans were evil, that they killed pregnant women and ate their victims. They were required to pay taxes in rice and other foodstuffs or money, supply recruits for VC units, transport supplies and clear battlefields of the dead. The civilians also supplied the labor to dig fighting trenches and bunkers for combat units and tunnels to shelter political, medical, communication and other such stationary facilities. The ARVN had attempted to recover Ben Suc before, but it and the Iron Triangle had been in VC hands for about two years.

At the direction of General Seaman, who believed VC agents had penetrated several ARVN headquarters, Cedar Falls was held in strict secrecy—even from some of the participating ARVN allies—until the day before its January 8 launch. On January 7, six newsmen were given a briefing on Cedar Falls, including 24-year-old Jonathan Schell of the New Yorker, who recorded the briefing by Major Allen C. Dixon. Pointing to a map, the major began: “We have two targets, actually. There’s the Iron Triangle, and then there’s the village of Ben Suc.” Dixon called the village a “solid VC” political center. “We know there’s important VC infrastructure there,” he said. “What we’re really after is the infrastructure. We’ve run several operations in this area before with ARVN but it’s always been hit and run. You go in there, leave the same day and the VC are back that night. This time we’re really going to do a thorough job of it; we’re going to clean out the place completely. The people are all going to be resettled in a temporary camp near Phu Cuong, the provincial capital down the river, and then we’re going to move everything out—livestock, furniture and all of their possessions. The purpose here is to deprive the VC of this area for good.”

Dixon told the reporters that 500 1st Division troops would land in 60 helicopters around Ben Suc at 0800, to avoid mines and booby traps that were on the village’s approaches. A helicopter with loudspeakers would instruct villagers to assemble at the village center and inform them that anyone attempting escape would be considered Viet Cong. Safe conduct pass leaflets would be dropped for any VC desiring to defect. Dixon said the villagers would be evacuated and cared for by incoming ARVN units—which would be briefed on their role shortly before they were brought to the Triangle.


The next morning, January 8, reporter Schell joined troops of the 1st Division’s 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Alexander Haig at Dau Tieng, 11 miles north of Ben Suc. They flew due south at 2,500 feet, within sight of the village but on a path that appeared well to the west of Ben Suc. Gradually losing altitude, the 60 helicopters disappeared from the village’s view, and then turned toward it at treetop level, roaring forward at 100 mph. Flaring out at precisely 0800, the helicopters drifted down on three landing zones around Ben Suc. Their surprise was complete and the village was quickly surrounded. Sporadic firing faded away.

After the helicopters left to pick up more troops, a single Huey circled above, giving instructions to the inhabitants through a loudspeaker. Well to the north, U.S. artillery fire began hitting designated landing zones in preparation for helicopter-borne assaults into the nearby wood. Within an hour, as they had been ordered to do, about 1,000 villagers had gathered at Ben Suc’s school. South Vietnamese police and ARVN troops then arrived to screen the villagers and cull males between 15 and 45. A 1st Division field kitchen was set up and a medical tent was erected so U.S. medics could offer treatment to the waiting inhabitants. A detailed search of the villagers’ homes by ARVN soldiers began. By midafternoon, some 3,500 dejected and unfriendly villagers had been assembled. It was looking like Cedar Falls might be a textbook piece of allied military precision.

sgt-_ronald_h-_payne_tunnel_rat_vietnam_war_1967“Tunnel Rat” preparing to enter a tunnel complex

That’s when things soured. While New Yorker reporter Schell was observing the operation around Ben Suc, he came on an ugly scene of ARVN officers interrogating some young males. The suspects, who failed to answer questions to the officers’ satisfaction, were repeatedly beaten—all this, Schell wrote, under the eyes of “a very fat American with a red face and an expression of perfect boredom.” When a U.S. Army captain arrived on the scene, he took Schell aside and said, “You see, they do have some, well, methods and practices that we are not accustomed to, that we wouldn’t use…but the thing you’ve got to understand is that this is an Asian country, and their first impulse is force.”

14 Jan 1967, Ben Suc, South Vietnam --- Vietnamese Refugees Getting Ready for Relocation --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
14 Jan 1967, Ben Suc, South Vietnam — Vietnamese Refugees Getting Ready for Relocation — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Soon, the evacuation plan for the families quickly unraveled. While Seaman’s secretive planning yielded a thoroughly surprised enemy, it also produced distrust between the allies, an agonizing delay in the operation, and perhaps worse. All of the military-age males were flown to Phu Cuong for interrogation in the afternoon, but the unexpected and hasty effort to round up enough ARVN landing craft to transport the families, their animals and possessions on the Saigon River from Ben Suc to Phu Cuong broke down. South Vietnamese authorities, angry with their pushy, inconsiderate American allies, simply had not had the time to identify, plan, assemble and supervise a flotilla, resulting in a two-day delay. On January 10, General DePuy, disgusted and impatient with the handling of the refugees, took charge. He organized truck convoys to transport some families to the provincial capital and ordered the landing craft be used to bring the rest of the villagers and the farmers’ water buffalos.


Meanwhile, searching and fighting was progressing in the woods surrounding Ben Suc. Since landing, 1st Division troops had discovered several tunnel complexes and stores of foodstuffs, ammunition and other supplies. Some of the surprised Viet Cong fought back, and early fighting left 40 dead, while the Americans were initially free of battle deaths. The biggest fight of the entire operation took place across the river in the 25th Division area when a 2nd Brigade unit made an unexpected, sharp contact with a battalion-size enemy force during an air assault. This bloody action continued for most of the day with men of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry breaking up the enemy battalion and chasing down groups of its survivors. In this hot, deadly fight, six Americans died, while the VC left 100 bodies of their outgunned battalion on the field.


As the sweep of the Triangle continued for two weeks, many smaller actions took place, but the main role of U.S. forces became locating, searching and destroying hundreds of tunnels. The GIs soon learned how to spot a tunnel entrance, entice any enemy out of it, and then send a pistol-armed volunteer, or “tunnel rat,” inside with flashlight, compass and field phone, to explore and retrieve documents, weapons, and ammunition. The tunnel would then be destroyed by explosives or by pumping acetylene gas into the passageways and igniting it.


A notable exception to the largely passive response to the U.S. sweep of the Triangle came when the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, entered the woods just northeast of Ben Suc, looking for a previously identified VC installation. The facility was a camouflaged medical supply depot with a tunnel being used as a hospital, where Dr. Vo Hoang Le, his wife and several assistants were tending to 60 patients. Alerted by the Ben Suc attack, Dr. Le decided to ignore instructions to flee or hide from the Americans and opted to arm his staff, prepare concealed firing positions and defend his hospital with four rifles, a Thompson submachine gun and his own .45-cal. revolver.

The next day, at 1230, Dr. Le saw three American soldiers approaching. When they were within 20 feet, he began firing, killing all three. Le’s wife scurried through a blizzard of American bullets to the American bodies and returned with their M-16s and some ammunition. Spotting a GI crawling forward to retrieve one of the bodies, Le killed him. The Americans called in artillery and an airstrike with napalm. In the afternoon, the Americans launched three attacks, each pushed back by Le and the defenders. The doctor later recalled: “That night, I raised the question of withdrawing. Some of my comrades were against the idea….I told them if we stayed, we would not be able to withstand the next day’s assault….We left six of the wounded behind in secret tunnels; they had lost legs or had head wounds and could not walk. Two nurses stayed to look after them….We went through the shell fire….Two men were wounded during the journey, but none were killed.”


On January 11, an argument about the treatment of the refugees arose among U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders. It involved General DePuy and the head of the regional U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) office, John Paul Vann. An ex-U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Vann was a courageous, intelligent 43-year-old former Ranger who had been an adviser in Vietnam in 1962-63, and had keen insights into Vietnamese culture. The dispute began with DePuy’s quick inspection of the Phu Cuong reception camp and his outrage at the lack of adequate organization, sanitation, shelter, food and medical services for the refugees. DePuy complained about the abysmal conditions to General Seaman and suggested that he take charge of the camp, as he’d taken charge of the evacuation. Seaman reaffirmed his desire to have the Vietnamese take care of their own people with Vann’s assistance in supplying resources. Vann phoned DePuy to see if he could relieve the general’s concerns and got an angry response: “Vann, your lousy organization has fallen flat on its face and I am going to move in and do the job—as usual!” Vann countered that the Vietnamese authorities were responsible for the camp’s shortcomings and the reason behind that stemmed from their belief that the refugees had no loyalty to the Saigon government.

Within a few days, the refugees’ plight was somewhat eased with the arrival of tents, clothing, food and water and sanitary facilities—much of it coming from the 1st Division. Five months later, under Vann’s hand, the refugees were living in concrete block buildings with metal roofs, fairly well supplied and maintaining the same standard of living as the dependents of ARVN soldiers. However, no one involved in the evacuation dispute was truly satisfied—least of all, the refugees themselves.

Up in the Triangle and the 25th Division’s search area, the destruction of Military Region IV facilities continued until January 26, when Operation Cedar Falls ended. Vietnamese paratroopers assumed the search of Ben Suc and made the most stunning find yet. The VC had taken advantage of the allied proclivity to avoid hitting villages with artillery and airstrikes, and had dug a vast, three-story-deep complex of tunnels and chambers covering several acres underneath the village. There were offices, medical facilities, storage bins and spaces for the manufacture of clothing, munitions and footwear, even special defense capabilities—tunnels leading to surface observation and firing positions.

Elsewhere, other facilities were found, including several underground VC provincial and district government headquarters. MR4’s signal and cryptographic center was located, along with files and codebooks. Its intelligence section contained a trove of documents, including more than 200 personal history sheets on cadre and a notebook of names of ARVN officers who were supplying the VC with information and U.S. ammunition. The postal, communications and transportation section was found with extensive records, and an operations office was also identified, yielding campaign plans and maps. A number of camouflaged, aboveground rice storage facilities were also found, shielding hundreds of tons of bagged rice.


The results of Operation Cedar Falls were impressive, as more than four square miles of jungle had been cleared. The allies had captured 578 weapons and 3,700 tons of rice—enough to feed five regiments for a year. Eleven hundred bunkers, 424 tunnels, and 509 structures were destroyed. The effectiveness of pattern activity analysis had been confirmed. Viet Cong losses included 723 killed and 213 taken prisoner, among them 12 high-ranking officials and MR4’s talkative operations officer, who was caught trying to spirit away two pounds of documents and maps. More than 500 enemy personnel defected and some 500,000 pages of documents were seized. Within a few days, police and ARVN counterintelligence authorities began picking up enemy agents and traitors and breaking up underground networks throughout the region and in Saigon. Almost immediately, incidences of assassination, sabotage and guerrilla actions in the region dramatically dropped. The cost included 72 American and ARVN battle deaths.

Some Viet Cong did return to the Iron Triangle after the operation, but keeping them out would have required a defending force of considerable size, which the allies believed to be an unwise use of scarce soldiers. The Viet Cong who did return found life in a free-fire zone perilous and challenging without villagers to supply labor, recruits, and food.

Cedar Falls yielded two positive results that leaders could not have envisioned when they planned the operation. The evacuation and settlement of the Triangle’s refugees were so flawed that the Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) organization was created three months later. An ambassadorial-level civilian, reporting to the commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, led the organization. This integrated military-civilian structure proved superior and gave Westmoreland the authority to direct U.S. pacification support along with military advisory and combat operations.

The other unanticipated achievement was the massive collection of documents that led to the arrests of key Viet Cong agents and officials in Saigon and its environs. Although unknown to the American planners of Cedar Falls, the subsequent weakening of the National Liberation Front infrastructure in the Saigon region would diminish the chances for success of the General Uprising then being secretly planned by COSVN.

Later, in confidential documents that circulated among Communist leaders, the Viet Cong admitted that Operation Cedar Falls had, for them, been a great disaster.

Rod Paschall, editor-at-large for MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, was a Special Forces detachment commander in Vietnam in 1962-63, served in Laos in 1964 and returned to Vietnam in 1966 as a company commander and staff officer until 1968. He finished his Southeast Asian service in Cambodia in 1974-75.

Operation Dewey Canyon


Operation Dewey Canyon was the last major offensive by the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It took place from January 22 through March 18, 1969 and involved a sweep of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)-dominated A Shau and Song Đa Krông Valleys by the 9th Marine Regiment. Based on intelligence and captured documents, the NVA unit in contact was believed to be the 9th NVA Regiment. The 56 days of combat were a tactical success but did not stop the overall flow of North Vietnamese men and matériel into South Vietnam. The 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation for their actions in Operation Dewey Canyon.


Throughout 1967 and into 1968, the United States Marine Corps units in the northern I Corps region had been tied to their combat bases along the South Vietnam border as part of the McNamara Line. This “line” was a combination of infantry units and ground sensors devised to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When Lt. Gen. Raymond G. Davis took command of the 3rd Marine Division, he ordered Marine units to move out of their combat bases and engage the enemy. He had noted that the manning of the bases and the defensive posture they developed was contrary to the aggressive style of fighting that Marines favor.

In early 1969, intelligence reports indicated there had been a large PAVN build-up in the A Shau and Đa Krông Valleys. The A Shau was just 10 km east of the Laotian border and some 34 km long, while the Đa Krông was several kilometers further east and separated by two mountain ranges.

The operation, named Operation Dawson River South was to comprise 3 distinct phases: first was the southern movement of the 9th Marines and supporting units into mutually supporting firebases near the objective area, second was a period of intensive patrolling around the firebases and then finally the Regiment would attack into the PAVN base areas. The Marine operation would be coordinated with supporting actions by the 101st Airborne Division and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 2nd Regiment east of the operations area.

Phase 1

On 18 January the 3rd Battalion 9th Marines was lifted from Vandegrift Combat Base to reoccupy Firebase Henderson. On 20 January Company L, 3/9 Marines reoccupied Firebase Tun Tavern and on the 21st Company A, 1st Battalion 9th Marines reoccupied Firebase Shiloh.


On 22 January the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines was lifted from Vandegrift to establish two new firebases further south: Dallas and Razor. On 24 January the 9th Marines command post was moved from Vandegrift to Razor.

On 25 January 3/9 Marines established Firebase Cunningham 6 km southeast of Razor and over the following four days the 9th Marines command post and five artillery batteries from 2nd Battalion, 12th Marines moved to Cunningham.


 UH-1Es at Fire Base Cunningham during Operation Dewey Canyon

Phase 2

The Operation was renamed Operation Dewey Canyon and on 24/5 January Companies from 2/9 and 3/9 Marines began patrolling south from Razor and Cunningham discovering the PAVN 88th Field Hospital which had been abandoned the previous day.


On 31 January after a brief firefight with PAVN forces Company G secured Hill 1175, while Company F established Firebase Erskine.  On 1 February Company K established Firebase Lightning which was occupied by the ARVN 1st and 2nd Battalions, 2nd Regiment.

On 2 February Firebase Cunningham was hit by 30-40 rounds of PAVN 122mm artillery fire from Laos resulting in 5 Marines killed.


With bad weather limiting patrolling and resupply, the Marine infantry was withdrawn to their bases. On 5 February as Company G withdrew from Hill 1175 they were ambushed resulting in 5 Marines killed and 18 wounded, while only 2 PAVN bodies were found. LCpl. Thomas Noonan, Jr. would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the engagement.

On 10 February, Company H, 2/9 Marines captured a large cache of ammunition, weapons, and equipment while on patrol five kilometers northwest of FSB Cunningham.  The haul of ammunition included 363 RPG rounds and 120 rounds of 60mm mortar ammunition.

Phase 3 and the raid into Laos

The third phase commenced on 11 February 1969. 1/9 Marines engaged a PAVN force preparing to attack Firebase Erskine and killed 25 PAVN. Company M repulsed a PAVN platoon killing 18 for the loss of 2 Marines, while Company C killed 24 PAVN for the loss of 2 Marines. On 16 February Company K, 3/9 Marines killed 17 PAVN.  On the 17th Company Co. G 2/9 Marines killed 39 PAVN for the loss of 5 Marines.

On the early morning of 17 February, PAVN sappers attacked Firebase Cunningham resulting in 4 Marines and 37 PAVN killed.


On 18 February Company A, 1/9 Marines encountered a PAVN bunker system which they overran killing 30 PAVN. The following morning Company C continued the attack against nearby PAVN positions killing a further 30 PAVN with total Marine losses of 1 killed. On the afternoon of the 20th Company C encountered another PAVN bunker system killing 71 PAVN and capturing 2 122mm field guns. Company A continued the attack killing a further 17 PAVN, total Marine losses were 6 dead.

Also on 18 February, Company L 3/9 Marines discovered a PAVN cemetery containing 185 bodies buried in June 1968.

As the Marines approached the Laotian border and in response to the artillery attack on Cunningham, Major General Davis had sent requests up the chain of command to get permission to enter Laos. This led to a redirection of MACV-SOG’s Operation Prairie Fire to conduct reconnaissance near Base Area 611 in Laos. On February 20, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell forwarded Davis’ request to have a limited raid into Base Area 611 up to COMUSMACV General Abrams for his approval.

By 20 February, 2/9 Marines had both Companies E and H on the Laotian border. From their position, Company H could see enemy convoys traveling along Route 922. Company H Commanding Officer David F. Winecoff later reported:

“The company, of course, was talking about let’s get down on the road and do some ambushing. I don’t think they really thought that they were going to let us go over into Laos … I knew if the military had their way we’d be over there in Laos and the company was all up for it…. With the Paris Peace Talks going on, I wasn’t sure what route was going to be taken.”

Operation Dewey Canyon map.jpg


On 21 February, Captain Winecoff received a message from Colonel Barrow, 9th Marines Commanding Officer, to set up an ambush along Route 922. The Captain’s men needed rest, and he requested a postponement but was denied by Colonel Barrow. The Captain utilized his 1st and 2nd Platoons, and at 16:10, 1st Platoon moved out and made its way to 2nd Platoon’s position. At 18:30, Winecoff briefed his men on the ambush. After dark, they moved out towards route 922, about 900 meters away. By 01:00, Captain Winecoff and Hotel Company were in place and setting up the ambush.  Within minutes of getting into position they started hearing trucks coming down the road and continued to observe as 40 minutes later, a lone truck and one PAVN soldier also walked through the kill zone. Winecoff had not wanted the ambush sprung on one truck or soldier, realizing that eventually, a bigger target would come down the road. At 02:30, the lights of eight trucks appeared, and as three trucks came into the kill zone the column of vehicles stopped. Not wanting to give away the ambush or their position Winecoff, set off the claymores and the ambush. The Marines poured small arms and automatic weapons fire on the three vehicles, the forward observer alerted the artillery, and rounds bracketed the company position.

After minutes of fire, Captain Winecoff had his men moved forward, ensuring that everything was destroyed. The company proceeded to move out to the rally point 600 meters away and waited till daylight. Later, it rejoined with 3rd Platoon who had not been involved with the ambush because of the heavy patrols it had been involved with in the previous days. H Company was resupplied and the men rested. They had destroyed three trucks and killed eight PAVN soldiers. Hotel Company did not suffer any casualties.


A wounded Marine is helped to an evacuation point

After Action Reports of the patrol were met with positive reviews, General Abrams formally approved the operation. The success of the operation was more valuable than just the destruction of the enemy because it allowed Colonel Barrow to request that continued operations in Laos be approved. His reasoning for continued operations was the presence of the enemy in the area was a threat to his troops. Barrow noted, “I put a final comment on my message, which said, quote, “Put another way, my forces should not be here if ground interdiction of Route 922 not authorized.” The message finally reached General Abrams via General Stilwell, who had adopted the Colonel’s recommendation. General Abrams approved further action on February 24 but restricted discussions of the Laotian operation.


Also on 21 February, Company M 3/9 Marines discovered a PAVN maintenance facility including a bulldozer and on further searching around Hill 1228 discovered 2 122mm field guns and a large tunnel complex inside the mountain.

On 22 February, Company A 1/9 Marines overran a PAVN position eight kilometers southeast of FSB Erskine killing 7 PAVN for the loss of 1 Marine. As Company A continued patrolling they encountered and overran an entrenched PAVN Company killing 105 PAVN for the loss of 11 Marines. Captured documents indicated the unit in contact was the 3rd Battalion, 9th NVA Regiment (also known as the K.16 NVA Battalion).   The Company A commander 1Lt Wesley L. Fox would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the battle.

Company H was ordered to go down Route 922 on February 24. Morale was low because the Marines were tired after several days of patrolling. Additionally, they did not want to leave the resupplies that included 60 mm mortar ammunition and C-rations.  Hotel Company was to move into Laos followed by Companies E and F and push eastward on the road, forcing the enemy into the hands of the 1st and 3d Battalions. After a six-hour night march, Hotel set up a hasty ambush; at 11:00 on 24 February, six PAVN soldiers walked into their kill zone, of which four were killed. On February 25, Hotel Company continued to move eastward again engaging NVA, resulting in the capture of one 122 mm field gun, two 40mm antiaircraft guns and the killing of eight PAVN soldiers. Company H suffered two dead and seven wounded. Later that day a company patrol was ambushed by an estimated 15 NVA troops who were dug in fortified bunkers and fighting holes. The patrol was reinforced and was able to fight its way through, capturing a second 122 mm gun and killing two. Casualties were mounting for Hotel Company: three killed and five wounded. Corporal William D. Morgan was one of the men killed in action when he made a daring dash and directed fire away from Private First Class Robinson Santiago and Private Robert Ballou. Robert Ballou was wounded multiple times that day and Robinson Santiago was killed-in-action. Corporal Morgan was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.


Company H, flanked by Companies E and F, continued their drive east, which was rapid and did not allow for the Companies to conduct thorough searches. Advancing much slower would have garnered much more equipment. However, 2nd Battalion did capture 20 tons of foodstuffs and ammunition, while killing 48 PAVN soldiers. On 26 February, Company F, 2/9 Marines discovered a large cache nine kilometers south of FSB Erskine which included 198 rounds of 122mm artillery ammunition and 1,500 rounds of 12.7mm ammunition for anti-aircraft guns.

The three companies were within 1,000 meters of the South Vietnamese border by March 1 and were flown by helicopter to Vandegrift Combat Base on March 3, officially ending operations in Laos. 2nd Battalion sustained eight killed and 33 wounded during the operation. For the record, all of the dead were listed as being killed in Quảng Trị Province, South Vietnam and for political reasons, no reference was made about being in Laos.  On 27 February Company D discovered a large PAVN weapons cache near Hill 1044 that included 629 rifles and over 100 crew-served weapons.


With the Marine objectives achieved by early March the operations plan called for the phased withdrawal of the Marines from the operational area, however, this was hampered by bad weather. As 3/9 Marines withdrew to Firebase Cunningham on 3 March they were ambushed by a PAVN force and PFC Alfred M. Wilson would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the firefight. The operation concluded at 20:00 on 18 March as the last Marines arrived back at Vandegrift.

Marine losses were 130 killed in action and 932 wounded, in return, the Marines reported 1,617 PAVN killed, the discovery of 500 tons of arms and munitions, and denial of the valley as a PAVN staging area for the duration of the operation.

Notable decorations and awards during the operation were:

  • First Lt. Archie “Joe” Biggers, Platoon Leader 9th Regiment, U.S. Marine Corps, who led the platoon that captured the two 122 mm guns, was wounded in action during the operation and was awarded a Silver Star.
  • The 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation.

In 1971, the operation to clear Highway 9 from Đông Hà Combat Base to the Laotian border was named Operation Dewey Canyon II in an attempt to misdirect enemy attention towards the A Shau Valley instead of Tchepone, the actual objective of the combined campaign.

The Cambodian Campaign

The Cambodian Campaign (also known as the Cambodian Incursion and the Cambodian Invasion) was a series of military operations conducted in eastern Cambodia during 1970 by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)(NRA) during the Vietnam War. These invasions were a result of the policy of President Richard Nixon. A total of 13 major operations were conducted by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) between 29 April and 22 July and by US forces between 1 May and 30 June.


The objective of the campaign was the defeat of the approximately 40,000 troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, also known as Viet Cong) who were ensconced in the eastern border regions of Cambodia. Cambodia’s official neutrality and military weakness made its territory effectively a safe zone where Vietnamese communist forces could establish bases for operations over the border. With the US shifting toward a policy of Vietnamization and withdrawal, the US sought to shore up the South Vietnamese government’s security by eliminating the cross-border threat.

The new commander of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), General Creighton W. Abrams, recommended to President Richard M. Nixon shortly after his inauguration that the Cambodian Base Areas be attacked by aerial bombardment utilizing B-52 Stratofortress bombers.  The president initially refused, but the breaking point came with the launching of PAVN’s “Mini-Tet” Offensive of 1969 within South Vietnam. Nixon, angered at what he perceived as a violation of the “agreement” with Hanoi after the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam, authorized the covert air campaign.   The first mission of Operation Menu was dispatched on 18 March and by the time it was completed 14 months later more than 3,000 sorties had been flown and 108,000 tons of ordnance had been dropped on eastern Cambodia.

Map showing the army bases along the Vietnamese Cambodian border

 Map showing the headquarter complexes along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border

During a televised address on 20 April, Nixon announced the withdrawal of 150,000 U.S. troops from South Vietnam during the year. This planned withdrawal implied restrictions on any offensive U.S. action in Cambodia. By the spring of 1970, MACV still maintained 330,648 U.S. Army and 55,039 Marine Corps troops in South Vietnam, most of whom were concentrated in 81 infantry and tank battalions.  Many of them, however, were preparing to leave the country or expected to leave in the near future and would not be available for immediate combat operations.


South Vietnamese forces had been rehearsing for just such an operation since late March. On 27 April, an ARVN Ranger Battalion had advanced into Kandal Province to destroy a communist base. Four days later other South Vietnamese troops drove 16 kilometers into Cambodian territory. Lon Nol, who had initially attempted to follow a neutralist policy of his own, requested military aid and assistance from the U.S. government on 14 April.  On that day, South Vietnamese forces then conducted the first of three brief cross-border operations under the aegis of Operation Toan Thang (Complete Victory) 41, sending armored cavalry units into regions of Cambodia’s Svay Rieng Province nicknamed, “the Angels Wing” and “the Crow’s Nest”. On 20 April, 2,000 South Vietnamese troops advanced into the Parrot’s Beak, killing 144 PAVN troops. On 22 April, Nixon authorized American air support for the South Vietnamese operations. All of these incursions into Cambodian territory were simply reconnaissance missions in preparation for a large-scale effort being planned by MACV and its ARVN counterparts, subject to authorization by Nixon.

Not all of the members of the administration agreed that an invasion of Cambodia was either militarily or politically expedient. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird and Secretary Rogers were both opposed to any such operation due to their belief that it would engender intense domestic opposition in the U.S. and that it might possibly derail the ongoing peace negotiations in Paris (they had both opposed the Menu bombings for the same reasons). Both were castigated by Henry Kissinger for their “bureaucratic foot-dragging.” As a result, Laird was bypassed by the Joint Chiefs in advising the White House on planning and preparations for the Cambodian operation.

 On 30 April 1970, President Nixon announced the attack into Cambodia. In a televised address to the nation, he justified it as a necessary response to North Vietnamese aggression

On the evening of 25 April Nixon dined with his friend Bebe Rebozo and Kissinger. Afterward, they screened one of Nixon’s favorite movies, Patton, a biographical portrayal of controversial General George S. Patton, Jr., which he had seen five times previously. Kissinger later commented that “When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon’s] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton.”

The following evening, Nixon decided that “We would go for broke” and gave his authorization for the incursion.  The joint U.S./ARVN campaign would begin on 1 May with the stated goals of reducing allied casualties in South Vietnam; assuring the continued withdrawal of U.S. forces; and enhancing the U.S./Saigon government position at the peace negotiations in Paris.


In order to keep the campaign as low-key as possible, General Abrams had suggested that the commencement of the incursion be routinely announced from Saigon. At 21:00 on 30 April, however, President Nixon appeared on all three U.S. television networks to announce that “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight” and that “the time has come for action.” He announced his decision to launch American forces into Cambodia with the special objective of capturing COSVN,”the headquarters of the entire communist military operation in South Vietnam.”  COSVN as a single headquarters for control of PAVN operations in South Vietnam probably did not exist, or, at least, was never found.

Years later Trương would recall just how “close [South Vietnamese] were to annihilating or capturing the core of the Southern resistance – elite units of our frontline fighters along with the civilian and much of the military leadership”. After many days of hard marches, the PRG reached the northern bases, and relative safety, in the Kratie region. Casualties were light and the march even saw the birth of a baby to Dương Quỳnh Hoa, the deputy minister of health in the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). The column needed many days to recover and Trương himself would require weeks to recover from the long march.

ARVN’s M113 APC on a road in Cambodia

11th ACR’s M551 Sheridan and mine-clearing team on a road in Cambodia

South Vietnamese forces had already crossed the border on 30 April, launching Operation Toan Thang 42. 12 ARVN battalions of approximately 8,700 troops (two armored cavalry squadrons from III Corps and two from the 25th Division and 5th Infantry Divisions, an infantry regiment from the 25th Infantry Division, and three Ranger battalions and an attached ARVN Armored Cavalry Regt from the 3rd Ranger Group) crossed into the Parrot’s Beak region of Svay Rieng Province. The offensive was under the command of Lieutenant General Đỗ Cao Trí, the commander of III Corps, who had a reputation as one of the most aggressive and competent ARVN generals. During their first two days in Cambodia, ARVN units had several sharp encounters with PAVN forces. The North Vietnamese, forewarned by previous ARVN incursions, however, conducted only delaying actions in order to allow the bulk of their forces to escape to the west.

The ARVN operation soon settled down to become a search and destroy mission, with South Vietnamese troops combing the countryside in small patrols looking for PAVN supply caches. Phase II of the operation began with the arrival of elements of the 9th Infantry Division. Four tank-infantry task forces attacked into the Parrot’s Beak from the south. After three days of operations, ARVN claimed 1,010 PAVN troops had been killed and 204 prisoners taken for the loss of 66 ARVN dead and 330 wounded.


On 1 May an even larger operation, known by the ARVN as Operation Toan Thang 43 and by MACV as Operation Rockcrusher, got underway as 36 B-52s dropped 774 tons of bombs along the southern edge of the Fishhook. This was followed by an hour of massed artillery fire and another hour of strikes by tactical fighter-bombers. At 10:00, the 1st Air Cav Division, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 1st ARVN Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade then entered Kampong Cham Province of Cambodia. Known as Task Force Shoemaker (after General Robert M. Shoemaker, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division), the force attacked the long-time communist stronghold with 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops. The operation utilized mechanized infantry and armored units to drive deep into the province where they would then link up with ARVN airborne and U.S. airmobile units that had been lifted in by helicopter.

Opposition to the incursion was expected to be heavy, but PAVN/NLF forces had begun moving westward two days before the advance began. By 3 May, MACV reported only eight Americans killed and 32 wounded, low casualties for such a large operation. There was only scattered and sporadic contact with delaying forces such as that experienced by elements of the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry three kilometers inside Cambodia. PAVN troops opened fire with small arms and rockets only to be blasted by tank fire and tactical airstrikes. When the smoke had cleared, 50 dead PAVN soldiers were counted on the battlefield while only two U.S. troops were killed during the action.


1st Battalion/7th Cavalry, 3rd Brigade 1st Cavalry Division was in the Fishhook very early May through 30 June when they crossed the river back into Vietnam. There was extremely heavy combat throughout the period. American losses were very heavy, with all units relying on a heavy inflow of replacements to try to maintain at least half strength in the field. In one company, of all the men who had entered Cambodia, only nine left on 30 June, the rest having been either killed or wounded and evacuated. The unit was awarded the Valorous Unit Award, equivalent to individual Silver Stars, for their combat performance in the Fishhook.

The North Vietnamese had ample notice of the impending attack. A 17 March directive from the headquarters of the B-3 Front, captured during the incursion, ordered PAVN/NLF forces to “break away and avoid shooting back…Our purpose is to conserve forces as much as we can”.   The only party surprised amongst the participants in the incursion seemed to be Lon Nol, who had been informed by neither Washington nor Saigon concerning the impending invasion of his country. He only discovered the fact after a telephone conversation with the head of the U.S. mission, who had found out about it himself from a radio broadcast.


On the following day, elements of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry division entered what came to be known as “The City”, southwest of Snoul. The two-square-mile PAVN complex contained over 400 thatched huts, storage sheds, and bunkers, each of which was packed with food, weapons, and ammunition. There were truck repair facilities, hospitals, a lumber yard, 18 mess halls, a pig farm, and even a swimming pool.   Forty kilometers to the northeast, other 1st Cavalry Division elements discovered a larger base on 6 May. Nicknamed “Rock Island East” after the U.S. Army’s Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the area contained more than 6.5 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 500,000 rifle rounds, thousands of rockets, several General Motors trucks, and large quantities of communications equipment.

 The 2d Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry, enters Snoul, Cambodia on 4 May

While on patrol 20 kilometers northeast of “Rock Island East” on 23 May, a point man nicknamed Shakey (Chris Keffalos)  from the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry, tripped over a metal plate buried just below the surface of the ground. The trooper was later killed by PAVN defenders, but the cache he had uncovered was the first of 59 buried storage bunkers at the site of what was thereafter known as “Shakey’s Hill”. The bunkers contained thousands of cases of weapons and ammunition, all of which were turned over to the Cambodian army. Much of the captured enemy material was turned over to the MACV Special Support Group for Cambodia where it was maintained and then issued to Lon Nol’s Forces. This group was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Will H. Horn.


After the first week of operations, additional battalion and brigade units were committed to the operation, so that between 6 and 24 May, a total of 90,000 Allied troops (including 33 U.S. maneuver battalions) were conducting operations inside Cambodia.   Due to increasing political and domestic turbulence in the U.S., President Nixon issued a directive on 7 May limiting the distance and duration of U.S. operations to a depth of 30 kilometers (19 mi) and setting a deadline of 30 June for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces to South Vietnam.


In the II Corps area, Operation Binh Tay I (Operation Tame the West) was launched by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 40th ARVN Infantry Regiment against Base Area 702 (the traditional headquarters of the communist B-2 Front) in northeastern Cambodia from 5–25 May. Following airstrikes, the initial American forces, assaulting via helicopter, were driven back by the intense anti-aircraft fire. On the following day, the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry (on loan from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division), landed without opposition. Its sister unit, the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry was also unopposed. The 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry, however, inserted only 60 men before the intense PAVN fire (which shot down one helicopter and damaged two others) shut down the landing zone, leaving them stranded and surrounded overnight.  By the following morning, PAVN forces had left the area.

On the 7th, the division’s 2nd Brigade inserted its three battalions unopposed. After ten days (and only one significant firefight) the American troops returned to South Vietnam, leaving the area to the ARVN.  Historian Shelby Stanton has noted that “there was a noted lack of aggressiveness” in the combat assault and that the division seemed to be “suffering from almost total combat paralysis.”   During Operation Binh Tay II, the ARVN 22nd Division moved against Base Area 702 from 14–26 May. The second phase of the operation was carried out by ARVN forces against Base Area 701 between 20 May and 27 June when elements of the ARVN 22nd Division conducted operations against Base Area 740.


On 10 May, Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was ambushed by a much larger North Vietnamese force in the Se San Valley. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed and 28 wounded. Among the killed was Spc. Leslie Sabo, Jr. (posthumously promoted to sergeant), who was recommended for the Medal of Honor, but the paperwork went missing until 1999.   Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor on 16 May 2012 by President Barack Obama.

In the III Corps Tactical Zone, Operation Toan Thang 44 (Operation Bold Lancer), was conducted by the 1st and 2nd Brigades of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division between 6 May and 30 June. The targets of the operation were Base Areas 353, 354, and 707 located north and northeast of Tay Ninh, South Vietnam. Once again, a hunt for COSVN units was conducted, this time around the Cambodian town of Memot and, once again, the search was futile. During its operations, the 25th Infantry killed 1,017 PAVN and NLF troops while losing 119 of its own men killed.


News from two fronts: U.S. soldier follows the news while in Cambodia

Simultaneous with the launching of Toan Thang 44, the two battalions of the 3rd Brigade, U.S. 9th Infantry Division, crossed the border 48 kilometers southwest of the Fishhook into an area known as the Dog’s Face from 7 through 12 May. The only significant contact with PAVN forces took place near the hamlet of Chantrea, where 51 North Vietnamese were killed and another 21 were captured. During the operation, the brigade lost eight men killed and 22 wounded.  It was already too late for thousands of ethnic Vietnamese murdered by Cambodian persecution, but there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese still within the country who could now be evacuated to safety. South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu arranged with Lon Nol to repatriate as many as were willing to leave. The new relationship did not, however, prevent the Cambodian government from stripping the Vietnamese of their homes and other personal property before they left.

Thieu then authorized Operation Cuu Long, in which ARVN ground forces, including mechanized and armored units, drove west and northwest up the eastern side of the Mekong River from 9 May – 1 July. A combined force of 110 Vietnamese Navy and 30 U.S. vessels proceeded up the Mekong to Prey Veng, permitting IV Corps ground forces to move westward to Phnom Penh and to aid ethnic Vietnamese seeking flight to South Vietnam. Those who did not wish to be repatriated were then forcibly expelled.  Surprisingly, North Vietnamese forces did not oppose the evacuation, though they could easily have done so.

Other operations conducted from IV Corps included Operation Cuu Long II (16–24 May), which continued actions along the western side of the Mekong. Lon Nol had requested that the ARVN help in the retaking of Kompong Speu, a town along Route 4 southwest of Phnom Penh and 90 miles (140 km) inside Cambodia. A 4,000-man ARVN armored task force linked up with Cambodian ground troops and then retook the town. Operation Cuu Long III (24 May – 30 June) was an evolution of the previous operations after U.S. forces had left Cambodia.

After rescuing the Vietnamese from the Cambodians, ARVN was tasked with saving the Cambodians from the North Vietnamese. The goal was to relieve the city of Kompong Cham, 70 kilometers northwest of the capital and the site of the headquarters of Cambodia’s Military Region I. On 23 May, General Tri led a column of 10,000 ARVN troops along Route 7 to the 180-acre (0.73 km2) Chup rubber plantation, where PAVN resistance was expected to be heavy. Surprisingly, no battle ensued and the siege of Kompong Cham was lifted at a cost of 98 PAVN troops killed.

 USAF UH-1Ps over Cambodia.

 B-52D during a bombing mission over South-east Asia.

Within two months, however, the limit of the operational area was extended past the Mekong, and U.S. tactical aircraft were soon directly supporting Cambodian forces in the field.  These missions were officially denied by the U.S. and false coordinates were given in official reports to hide their existence.   Defense Department records indicated that out of more than 8,000 combat sorties flown in Cambodia between July 1970 and February 1971, approximately 40 percent were flown outside the authorized Freedom Deal boundary.

The real struggle for the U.S. and ARVN forces in Cambodia was the effort at keeping their units supplied. Once again, the need for security before the operations and the rapidity with which units were transferred to the border regions precluded detailed planning and preparation.   This situation was exacerbated by the poor road network in the border regions and the possibility of ambush for nighttime road convoys demanded that deliveries only take place during daylight.   Aerial resupply, therefore, became the chief method of logistical replenishment for the forward units. Military engineers and aviators were kept in constant motion throughout the incursion zone.


President Nixon proclaimed the incursion to be “the most successful military operation of the entire war.”   General Abrams was of like mind, believing that time had been bought for the pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside and that U.S. and ARVN forces had been made safe from any attack out of Cambodia during 1971 and 1972. A “decent interval” had been obtained for the final American withdrawal. ARVN General Tran Dinh Tho was more skeptical: “despite its spectacular results…it must be recognized that the Cambodian incursion proved, in the long run, to pose little more than a temporary disruption of North Vietnam’s march toward domination of all of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.”

 Cambodian civilians bag up captured North Vietnamese rice

The logistical haul discovered, removed, or destroyed in eastern Cambodia during the operations was indeed prodigious: 20,000 individual and 2,500 crew-served weapons; 7,000 to 8,000 tons of rice; 1,800 tons of ammunition (including 143,000 mortar shells, rockets, and recoilless rifle rounds); 29 tons of communications equipment; 431 vehicles; and 55 tons of medical supplies.   MACV intelligence estimated that PAVN/NLF forces in southern Vietnam required 1,222 tons of all supplies each month to keep up a normal pace of operations.  Due to the loss of its Cambodian supply system and continued aerial interdiction in Laos, MACV estimated that for every 2.5 tons of material sent south down the Ho Chi Minh trail, only one ton reached its destination. However, the true loss rate was probably only around ten percent.   General Abrams claimed 11,000 enemy soldiers killed and 2,500 captured, but his figures were disputed by CIA, who insisted that civilians death were figured into Abrams’s total

South Vietnamese losses were 809 killed, 3,486 wounded.  The United States suffered 338 dead, 1,525 wounded and 13 MIA.

Attack on Fire Base Jay

Fire Base Jay was located somewhere between Nui Chua Chan and Vo Dat, about a mile off a wide dirt road and controlled by the 2/7 Cav.

In the early morning hours of March 29, 1971, FB Jay was subjected to an all-out assault by the 93rd NVA Regiment.  Jay had been in position for eleven days, one day less than Illingworth. The NVA pounded Jay with artillery and rockets, then executed a full combat assault with several hundred infantry. The commander at Jay, Lt. Col. Robert Hannas, was gravely wounded, losing both legs to an RPG and a mortar round. His men held, however, but only by a whisker. Fifteen GIs were killed, another 54 wounded.

Fire Base Jay
From the Left: Margarito Gomez (KIA July 23, 1971),
William Prevost, Anthony Lashley, Larry Griffeth, and Lt. Green
From the Jerry Smith Collection

Fire Base Jay
A very small crowded fire base . . .
From the Jerry Smith Collection

Fire Base Jay
. . .With very loud guns.
From the Jerry Smith Collection


November 11, 2013 by Latosha Adams and Philip Keith

Michael J. Conrad, West Point Class of ’56, had his first defining hour at a dirty, dusty, outpost in the middle of the jungle, near the Cambodian border on April 1, 1970. It was at a place called Firebase Illingworth. Here is his story:


The Army’s tactics heretofore had been search-and-destroy, which had required an active hunt for the enemy followed by set piece battles on favorable terrain, when possible. The results had been mixed, mostly due to the NVA’s reluctance to throw themselves wantonly on the superior guns of the Americans. General Casey, who was then on his third tour in Vietnam (and would soon assume command of the entire Division), decided to roll the dice differently. With the concurrence of General Roberts, he gathered his battalion commanders and told them they were going to “bust some serious brush.” He wanted his units to hopscotch across the region, setting up and dismantling fire support bases with alacrity. These flimsy forts would be purposely placed on top of known enemy supply routes or near suspected caches of food and ammunition. They would not be heavily fortified. The idea was to present targets too tempting for the NVA to ignore. It worked. Wherever the 1st Cav placed these minimally manned outposts, the NVA exhibited a distinct inclination to attack them. When the NVA were sufficiently tempted and pounced, massive amounts of offsite artillery (usually at other nearby fire support bases) and TACAIR would be deployed in a concentrated effort to wipe out the attacking NVA force.

It was a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse and although the 1st Cav never lost an outpost, some of the engagements were a very near thing, indeed. Such was the case at Fire Support Base Illingworth on April Fool’s Day, 1970.

Promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Mike Conrad was, at the time, commanding officer of the 2nd battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. The 2/8 was Mike’s first major combat command. Between the four line companies assigned, a headquarters company and a recon platoon, Mike commanded about 650 men. During the months of February and March, the battalion had been engaged in a number of very serious firefights and casualties, especially in Charlie Company, had been extremely high. Nonetheless, the tempo had not let up. General Casey was encouraged by the results he was getting from his new strategy and he wanted the battalions under his control to bear down even harder and squeeze tighter.

As the month of March, 1970 drew to a close, Conrad’s Charlie Company, reduced to 85 men, was sent out on a long range scout for the NVA. After several harrowing days on patrol, Charlie inadvertently walked into the middle of a major NVA supply base. The NVA were situated in well fortified dirt-and-log bunkers, studded with automatic weapons, heavy machine guns and RPGs. Charlie, including more than two dozen “newbies” who had yet to fire a shot in anger, were instantly surrounded by six or seven times their numbers, pinned down, and fighting for their very lives. The beleaguered company commander got on the radio and called for help.

Mike Conrad sprinted for his helicopter, got in the air, jumped on the brigade frequency, and started marshaling resources to rescue his men. He called in TACAIR and artillery support; but, neither could do much good since the NVA and the Americans were intermingled. There was no way to fly in additional troops: there were no landing zones and the triple canopy jungle was far too dense for aerial insertion. Luckily, however, there was a single troop of cavalry from the 11th Armored nearby. Equally fortunate, these men were temporarily under Conrad’s operational command. Could they, by some miracle, “bust” enough jungle with their tanks and ACAVs to reach Conrad’s stranded men and pull them out? It was a desperate gamble, but one of the only plays available to Conrad, so he ordered these men to get moving.

Meanwhile, Conrad flew as close to his trapped grunts as survival would allow, constantly encouraging them and directing whatever artillery and air support he could. He tried many times to air drop supplies and ammunition. The NVA kept sending the helos away riddled with bullets, smoking, and often on fire. Only one relief mission, flown by General Casey himself, was able to get close enough to drop some badly needed water and ammunition.

Providentially, the cavalry was finally able to smash their way into the encirclement after several tense hours of punishing travel through the thick vegetation. The tanks and ACAVs pounded away at the NVA until all the surviving members of Charlie—and their dead—could be gathered up and safely extracted. It was a magnificent rescue and an inspiring tour de force, engineered by Mike Conrad’s quick thinking, tactical skill and, of course, his valiant troops.*

The tattered but unbroken remnants of Charlie (only 38 effective) were ordered to stand down and regroup at a nearby firebase that Conrad’s men had set up in a clearing about five miles away. This temporary outpost had been christened in the name of a 20-year old PFC by the name of “Jack” Illingworth, from the 2/8’s own Alpha Company. Illingworth had perished in a nasty firefight some two weeks prior, after heroically rescuing one of his own comrades, an act for which he would receive a posthumous Silver Star.

Conrad’s battalion had carved out FB Illingworth on March 17. The brigade’s G-2 had picked the spot from intel that indicated that it would be right on top of, or at least very close to, a major NVA infiltration route. The 1st Cav was throwing down another gauntlet, daring the NVA to protect their turf, begging them to come out and fight. Conrad’s’ troops would be the bait in a carefully staged trap—at least that was the plan. If the NVA didn’t take the bait—and they didn’t always follow the desires of the US Army—Conrad would, as he had done several times already, pick up his team and their weapons and move to another spot in four or five days. He already had his next jump coordinates selected, in fact.

Then something changed. A week went by. No orders to relocate came down the line. Charlie Company, before being pounced on March 26, had recovered documents from the body of a dead NVA officer. The man was carrying detailed sketches of FB Illingworth, including where all the guns were placed, the location of the TOC, the communications tower, and all of Conrad’s firing positions. That was it, as far as Conrad was concerned, and he hopped into his command helo to go see his boss, General Casey. Casey concurred with Conrad’s imperative to move the base, but, surprisingly, General Roberts demurred.  He wanted to hold tight, not only with Illingworth but also another nearby firebase, FB Jay, controlled by the 2/7. Conrad was dumbfounded; but, he had his orders.

Sure enough, in the early morning hours of March 29, FB Jay was subjected to an all-out assault by the 93rd NVA Regiment. Jay had been in position for eleven days, one day less than Illingworth. The NVA pounded Jay with artillery and rockets, then executed a full combat assault with several hundred infantry. The commander at Jay, Lt. Col. Robert Hannas, was gravely wounded, losing both legs to an RPG and a mortar round. His men held, however, but only by a whisker. Fifteen GIs were killed, another 54 wounded.

Surely now, Conrad believed, Illingworth would be abandoned. Imagine Conrad’s incredulity when, the next day, forty more tons of artillery ammunition arrived along with 30 replacements for Charlie Company.  “Stand fast,” he was told. “Dig in. General Roberts is happy with the action we are getting and he wants to see what will happen next.”


This was it: the beginning of Mike Conrad’s defining hours. Consider Conrad’s plight: Most of his battalion, companies A, B, and D, were out on patrol, too far out, in fact, to hump back in time to make any difference over what Conrad now believed was imminent. Charlie company was in rough shape and dealing with a raft of “cherries” who had never been in combat. His only nearby resource was Echo Recon platoon, a group of 21 tough, experienced, combat veterans. He pulled them back in and put them on the line next to Charlie Company, along with the Echo mortar platoon. He had a handful of men in his headquarters company, several radio operators, a supply sergeant or two. Detachments of three artillery battalions had been sent to Illingworth. Among them were 80-plus “redlegs” and their guns. The 105 and 155 MM howitzers (eight guns altogether) could be useful, but two behemoth, 8-inch guns would not: they were for long range work, not the close in fighting Conrad knew was coming. Also aboard the base were three Sheridan tanks, but they were all awaiting repairs and virtually useless.

Conrad did have plenty of TACAIR on call and his artillery officers had dialed in firing assignments for all the nearby fire support bases. Would it be enough? Conrad knew it would have to be—or they’d all end up as casualties or POWs.

The command structure was not working in Conrad’s favor either. The artillery assets aboard his firebase were not under his command or control. They reported to division artillery. Immensely complicating Conrad’s situation was that “someone” at division artillery, no one knows who it was to this day, shipped Conrad 40 unneeded and definitely unwanted tons of 8-inch artillery ammunition the day before the battle. There was no time to bunker it in properly and no one to countermand the orders sending it to Illingworth. It would sit, in the middle of the base, in a large, unprotected pile, waiting for an enemy grenade or satchel charge to blow it all to kingdom come.


Observation, intelligence, and experience all dictated that the enemy was lurking a few hundred yards away, in the jungle perimeter, setting up their available artillery and rockets. Conrad also suspected that there would be many more troops available to the NVA commander than the men he had available. Worse, there were no additional assets nearby that could get to Illingworth in time: the cavalry was over ten miles away, and there were no roads. All nearby infantry was dug in and defending the other firebases in the region. Conrad’s only external resource was TACAIR, as mentioned; but, the enemy would likely attack at night when airborne assets would be largely blind. Conrad also knew that the enemy would try to get in as close to his troops as quickly as possible. The tactic was dubbed  “danger close,” which meant “too close:” jets and attack helos would not be able to distinguish between friend and foe, thereby making it impossible to shoot.

Mike Conrad was finishing up his thirteenth year of commissioned service. He had done well. He was a lieutenant colonel with bright prospects and was already a favorite of his superiors. He was considered one of the best battalion commanders in the entire division. He had trained for this moment all his career. He had combat experience and a bucket full of academic honors. All of that was on the line. Depending on what he did with the next few hours of his life men would live or die and Conrad’s own career would move forward or effectively end. He was on the bubble. What would he do?

He could try and find some creative way to thwart his orders, but Mike Conrad was simply not that kind of soldier. He was a skilled and creative thinker, and a realist, but he was not a quitter and he would not thwart the chain of command. The command structure was not always right, he knew this, but breaking it, right or wrong, was not in his tradition, training, or schema. This was what he had been taught, what he believed, and it was what he would do. He knew, like countless others of his West Point forebears and peers, that the chain of command is the backbone of the military: break it, and you invite disaster, even if you’re ultimately proven right.

Mike Conrad would do the best he could with what he had, and if the chips fell his way, well, that would be good but if they didn’t, that was not going to be in his control.

Fire-Base-Illingworth-by-Philip-KeithAs darkness settled over FB Illingworth on the night of March 31, 1970, Conrad was convinced this would be the time when he and his men would be tested. He called all his officers together and gave them explicit instructions on how to handle each sector of their responsibilities. Conrad walked the entire post, with his radioman, several times, personally seeing to his dispositions and encouraging his troops. After darkness fell, he let his men stand down and grab some chow, have a smoke and catch a few minutes of sack time, but he held them in place, right where they needed to be, in their firing positions. Shortly after midnight, he executed a “mad minute,” opening up all the hand-held weapons on the base; but, knowing the enemy would be counting and spotting his guns, he had all the riflemen and machine gunners fire from “false” positions, then scurry back to their fortified and better entrenched emplacements. After the mad minute, Conrad passed the word for everyone to hunker down, under cover. He knew that any attack would begin with the NVA softening up the base with mortars, rockets, and artillery.

Shortly after 2 AM, the opening salvos from the NVA arched into the sky and starting raining down on Illingworth. The aim of the NVA was good: in the first few moments, they knocked down Conrad’s communications tower, effectively “blinding” him for long distance communication. He and his artillery liaison were able to communicate with a Blue Max helo pilot, circling above the base, who set up a comm link between Illingworth and division headquarters.

Seconds after the artillery barrage lifted, the 272nd NVA Regiment, over 400 strong, came boiling out of the jungle, attacking in waves of 30 or 40 at several different points along the perimeter. Fortunately for Conrad, unfortunately for the NVA, the enemy elected to concentrate its attacks at the southwest corner of the base, right where the infantry defense was the strongest.

Battle damage

Men grappled, fought, stabbed and shot each other in the darkness for the next hour. TACAIR roared overhead, savaging the NVA assault on its perimeters as men were fed into the fight. The 105-mm batteries, at zero elevation, banged away, punching gaps in the lines of the attackers. The redlegs who couldn’t use or sight their weapons for close-in work grabbed M-16s and frags and stepped up to the berm to fight as infantry. The unhorsed cavalrymen grabbed whatever handheld weapons they could scrounge and manned their portion of the sandbagged wall.

While all of this was going on, Conrad was everywhere: racing around the perimeter, plugging gaps, shifting men, pushing frightened soldiers back on the line. He tried to sow encouragement everywhere he went.

Shortly after 3 AM, as feared, the huge, unprotected stockpile of 8-inch ammunition blew. How it happened remains unknown: there were many small fires nearby; or, it could have been a satchel charge, grenade or mortar round. Some witnesses likened it to an atomic blast, complete with a giant mushroom cloud. Men close to the blast were sucked into the sky or pounded into the ground. Everyone else was tossed through the air or knocked flat. Eardrums were blown, guns ripped from hands, dirt and dust flew everywhere, so much so, in fact, that all weapons jammed. Combat came to a halt. For the next few minutes, death and destruction rained from the sky: 200-pound artillery shells, truck parts, sandbags, equipment, tools, and utensils of all kinds; and, of course, bodies, or parts of bodies.

Mike Conrad, at the time, was providentially in the TOC but later stated, “I thought it was the end of the world.”

A full ten minutes of silence passed. As friend and foe staggered back to their feet sporadic firing resumed, as soon as weapons could be cleaned, but the blast had broken the back of the attack. One by one, then in small groups, the enemy retreated into the jungle. The surviving Americans went about gathering up the few live prisoners left behind, mostly wounded, and rooting out the few attackers still willing to fight. A little after 4 AM, the main fight was over. Shortly thereafter, a company of Sherman tanks from the 11th Armored burst through the jungle thickets nearby. They had been charging hell bent for leather for the past four hours, riding to the rescue. They didn’t get there until the action was all but over, but when they arrived they threw an immediate and welcome cordon around the devastated compound.

At about 5 AM, the first of the dust-offs arrived, to evacuate the wounded, of which there were many. Brigade and division officers flew in to assess the damage and get first-hand reports on the action.  Mike Conrad was a mess, but he was alive and had only sustained cuts and bruises. He reported to General Casey covered in dirt, his voice hoarse from all the shouting he had done, and still coughing out spittles of dirt and dust from his grit-filled lungs. If anyone had a right to say, “I told you so!” it was Mike Conrad, but he did not. He delivered as professional a report as his exhaustion and depleted stamina would allow.

Conrad’s command had held together and repulsed an enemy force of far superior numbers. Over one hundred NVA bodies littered the battlefield—and those were just the corpses left behind. The NVA liked to remove their dead from the field, mostly to obscure their losses from a US Army obsessed with body counts.

General Roberts landed, told the men what an outstanding job they had done, handed out a few random Silver Stars from a cigar box stashed aboard his helicopter, then flew away after promising the survivors that a “hot meal” would be flown in “shortly.” It ultimately arrived in time for dinner.

General Casey was laudatory as well, praising Conrad for holding his command together in the face of very bad odds. He gave Conrad some good news and some bad: the good news was that he and his battalion would get a stand-down, back to the rear, to re-group and re-arm. The bad news was that it wouldn’t come until the next day: Conrad and his men would have to hold Illingworth one more night. Conrad was thunderstruck, but Casey was firm.  One more day.

Slowly, the survivors of Illingworth began to pick up the pieces, bag up the bodies and parts of bodies, reposition the artillery aiming stakes, find serviceable weapons and ammo, and bind up their wounds.  Many dust-offs came and went. Water and hot chow finally arrived. The chaplain held a mass amidst the wreckage.

Most, Mike Conrad included, thought the enemy might come back that night and try and finish the job. They nervously positioned their vastly thinned out ranks along the berm once more and waited. The night passed. The enemy did not return.

The next day Fire Base Illingworth was abandoned. The engineers arrived and dismantled everything, salvaging what they could. By the end of the day, Illingworth was no more—except for the large mound of earth covering the common grave of the enemy soldiers who had perished there.

Mike Conrad’s depleted battalion was pulled off the line. They were sent to the rear, as promised, to rest up and regroup. Little did they know that a month later they would be back in the thick of it, charging off with the rest of the division into Cambodia.

Mike Conrad had gone through hell and back, transiting his defining hours with valor and distinction. He would be awarded another Silver Star for his courage and leadership at Fire Base Illingworth. He would recommend one of his young E-Recon warriors, Peter Lemon, who exhibited extraordinary bravery during the dark hours at Illingworth, for the Medal of Honor. Lemon would receive that award more than a year later. Two Distinguished Service Crosses, both posthumous, were also earned by members of E-Recon, Sergeants Casey Waller, and Brent Street. There were also a slew of Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Army Commendation Medals, too. Many Combat Infantryman Badges were earned, and dozens and dozens of Purple Hearts were granted.

Survivors at 9 AM on 4/1/70

The struggle at Fire Base Illingworth was the worst battle of the worst single day of the war in the year 1970. It was a battalion versus regiment slugfest with a 40% casualty rate on one side (the US) and better than a 50% casualty rate on the other (the 272nd NVA Regiment). Echoes from that contest, good and bad, echoed all the way from the battlefield to the White House.

Mike Conrad’s steadfast performance as a battalion commander at a very difficult time in the Vietnam War gained him notice and many friends. It certainly helped to propel him up the ladder. A year after Illingworth Mike was a full colonel, would make brigadier general  easily, then return to command his old division, the First Cavalry, and retire as a major general. He is still president of his West Point class, a group from which not only Mike emerged, but also BGEN John C. “Doc” Bahnsen and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Plaque remembering FSB Illingworth dedicated at the Artillery Museum 

The “defining hour” comes to all who don the uniform of a commissioned officer in the armed forces of the United States. It certainly came for Mike Conrad, and he survived its passage with honor, dignity, courage and steadfastness. This brings me to my final point: Mike Conrad, although an exceptional officer, was one of many from his era of the same caliber. The national angst that we have had for over five decades relative to the Vietnam War has tended to obscure the careers, deeds, and courage of many men and women like Mike. It’s time to change that. It’s time to bring these men and women “home” to the place of honor and dignity that they should enjoy in our pantheon of true American heroes. Mike is an example of the best of the best, but he is only one of the many tens of thousands who served in Vietnam who have been sidelined or largely ignored. It’s time to change that dynamic. I am hopeful that there will be many more narratives like Mike Conrad’s to reach the gaze of the American public in the days ahead. We should do so before these stories and the wonderfully brave, loyal, and courageous Americans who made them are lost to us for good.

*Mike Conrad, General Casey and the cavalry troop commander would all receive Silver Stars for this action and Alpha Troop of the 11th Armored would be belatedly decorated with the Presidential Unit Citation.

Phil Keith is a Vietnam veteran. He is the author of Firebase Illingworth and Blackhorse Riders. As he was writing his new book, Firebase Illingworth, he researched Conrad, whose reputation as a leader was more than proven during Vietnam, and beyond, until he retired as a Major General years later.

FSB Illingworth today—a “fames field”— the outline of former FSB is just barely visible.

The Battle of Ap Gu occurred during 31 March and 1 April 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam, to the west of the capital Saigon. The battle near the border with Cambodia left 609 Viet Cong killed, 5 captured, and over 50 weapons of all types captured, while the Americans lost 17 killed and 102 wounded.


Two American infantry battalions were scheduled to make an airborne assault into an area near the border with Cambodia to secure some roads and US bases, and to search and destroy communists in the surrounding area. The assault was scheduled for 30 March, but poor weather meant that one of the battalions did not land until the day after. In the early afternoon of 31 March, the Americans began reconnaissance missions, and one platoon was put into difficulty by a communist attack that killed their commanding officer. A few hours later, an American company was attacked by a battalion-sized communist force, and were in difficulty until supporting artillery allowed them to withdraw. The communists tried to exploit their advantage but were driven off by American firepower.

Before dawn the next day, the communists launched their main attacks on an American landing zone and fire support base with mortar fire and infantry charged. They managed to overrun a few bunkers and capture territory before the Americans called in air strikes and cluster bombs. This wore down the communists and they forced the Viet Cong to withdraw by early morning with heavy casualties.



On 26 March the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig, was told to prepare for an airborne assault deeper into War Zone C and nearer to the Cambodian border. At that time, the Battalion was attached to the 2d Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and was located at Fire Support Patrol Base C at Sroc Con Trang, where they were engaged in perimeter defense, road security, and occasional search and destroy operations. The plan was to make the landing on the morning of 30 March into what would be Landing Zone (LZ) George, some 14 km (9 mi) to the west. They would secure the zone for a follow-up landing by the 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, and then conduct operations together in an area where Viet Cong are expected to be positioned.


On the scheduled day of the assault, poor weather delayed the preparatory air strikes around and on the LZ, resulting in a two-hour delay. Thus, the assault of the 1/2nd Infantry was postponed until 31 March, and the 1/26th Infantry landed in the afternoon of 30 March at LZ George.  The LZ consisted of open fields covered with tall, meadow-like grass and the area was surrounded by medium to heavy jungle.  The remainder of the Battalion landed within an hour. Upon landing the Battalion dispatched cloverleaf patrols to try to intercept the Viet Cong. The patrols uncovered fortified positions in and around the LZ but made no contact. That evening the unit organized its night defensive position in the vicinity of the LZ. Fighting positions were dug with full overhead cover and interlocking fires all around, as was the standard practice. Listening posts were established and ambush patrols sent out. No significant contact with the Viet Cong occurred overnight.

The next morning, 31 March, the 1/2nd Infantry led by Lieutenant Colonel William C. Simpson landed at LZ George without incident. After this, they moved to 2 km (1 mi) southwest. The 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry began their search and destroy operations in the surrounding area. Company A went south and C Company east. B Company remained in reserve, manning and patrolling the Battalion perimeter at the LZ The Battalion’s reconnaissance platoon was searching the woods northwest of the perimeter. The Viet Cong were expecting the Americans and had hung small signs written in English on the trees, warning that Americans who went beyond the signs would not return.


At 13:00 the platoon moved further north into a wooded area, approximately 5 km (3 mi) south of the Cambodian border. There, first contact was made. The platoon’s point man was hit by enemy fire, and First Lieutenant Richard A. Hill went forward to check the situation, only to be mortally wounded. Only Hill’s radio operator was left in contact with the Battalion headquarters. Hill had advised the Battalion that his platoon was heavily engaged with automatic weapons, small arms, and grenades. Haig called for artillery support and after being advised that Hill was incapacitated, taking action to co-ordinate the artillery fire and air strikes in support of the platoon.

At the same time, B Company was closing on the perimeter after a sweep of the Battalion’s defensive zone. When advised of the reconnaissance platoon’s desperate position and that Hill had been hit, the commander of B Company took his men to the north to the assistance of the embattled platoon without the knowledge of Haig.

Colonel Haig boarded his helicopter, and it was not until he was airborne that he learned of B Company’s move. As Haig pointed out later, while Company B’s move was necessary, the lack of accurate control of artillery and air support complicated the problem. As a result, B Company had entered the battle without sufficient preparation and found itself heavily engaged along with the reconnaissance platoon.


The B Company commander reported that he was confronting a Viet Cong force of at least Battalion-size, and his optimism gradually faded; his men were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire, rockets, mortars, and recoilless rifles, and was running low on ammunition. Haig realized that reinforcements and relief were necessary.  Company A was alerted and ordered to move forward to relieve B Company.


Haig landed near the battle and had his Battalion operations officer take to the air to control fire direction. Haig found Hill’s body and the B Company commander wounded. Haig stayed and was joined by the A Company commander, who had moved his unit through and gained fire superiority over the enemy force.

The American artillery and air strikes increased, permitting all units, except initially two platoons of A Company still in contact, to be withdrawn under fire cover. As the Americans moved back, the Viet Cong left their bunkers and moved forward to try to keep the pressure on the Americans, but they were forced to stop because of the American bombardment, and the fighting stopped at 17:05. Seven Americans were killed and 38 wounded in the initial skirmish, while the Viet Cong casualties were unknown at that time.


Meanwhile, the Division commander, General John H. Hay, had ordered reinforcements. At 15:55 the first element of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, except C Company, touched down at LZ George under Viet Cong sniper fire and occupied positions to the west and northwest of the 1/26th Infantry. The Battalion, led by Colonel Rufus C. Lazzell, established night defensive positions. The two Battalions coordinated defensive plans to improve their fighting positions, establish listening posts, and send out ambush patrols

During the night, American harassment and interdiction artillery and mortar fires were placed in the area around the perimeter. From midnight until 04:00 on 1 April, listening posts to the north,  east, and south reported movement to their front; however, their contact was insignificant contact. Mortar fire was directed into areas of suspected Viet Cong activity.


At 04:55 a single Viet Cong mortar round exploded to the front of the perimeter of the 1/26th Infantry. Haig heard and correctly interpreted it to be a registration round for a mortar attack. He immediately ordered all of his companies to be on full alert posture and directed them to take cover and be prepared for an attack. He also recommended that the 1/16th Infantry do the same, and Lazzell’s unit complied.

Haig immediately requested Capt. Dave Ernest lay down artillery cover fire. Five minutes after the Viet Cong registration round landed, the first of several hundred rounds of 60-mm., 82-mm., and 120-mm. mortar fire was directed into the northern portions of the American perimeter. The Americans estimated the source of fire to be 1 km (1 mi) northeast of the defensive perimeter. They could hear the rounds being fired and concluded that the Viet Cong were nearby, and that so many mortars were firing that they “sounded like loud, heavy machine guns.” Due to the early warning and thus the rapid response, only 12 men were wounded.


At the same time, the mortar attack opened on the units in LZ George, a coordinated attack was launched against Fire Support Patrol Base C, where much of the artillery for the 1/26th Infantry and the 1/16th Infantry was dug in. The incoming mortar and 75-mm. pack howitzer rounds hit the artillery base and made it more inefficient. However, the artillery that had moved into Fire Support Patrol Base Thrust, on 29 March was not under incoming mortar attack and could provide support unhindered. The Americans were surprised that the Viet Cong did not attack this base to try to hinder their artillery fire.

Haig felt that the Viet Cong had wanted to press on after the previous day’s attack and that he would have taken the initiative if his opponents had not.  The heavy mortar attack ended at 05:15, but continued for a further hour at Fire Support Patrol Base C. During this time flare ships, a light helicopter fire team, and forward air controllers were furnished by the 2d Brigade tactical headquarters on request. Seven minutes later the Viet Cong started their ground attack against the northeast edge of the perimeter.

The attack mainly hit B and C Companies of the 1/26th Infantry, and A Company and the reconnaissance platoon of the 1/16th Infantry. As the soldiers manning the friendly listening posts withdrew to the perimeter, the Viet Cong followed them in. The withdrawing Americans had accidentally set off flares, allowing the Viet Cong to see them and open fire will small arms and machine guns, backed by mortars.

The surprise attack caught the Americans off guard and resulted in the capture of three bunkers and the capture of territory roughly 40 m by 100 m wide in the C Company sector and close-quarters hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Haig later admitted that the night defensive position he selected, with a natural wood line leading into the northeast portion of the perimeter made this the most vulnerable portion of his perimeter and that the Viet Cong were clever in attacking at this point.  The Americans had to fall back 75 m to consolidate.

The commander of Company C, Captain Brian H. Cundiff, defying the intense fire, moved among his men and organized an effective response to the Viet Cong penetration. At 06:30 the reserve of the 1/26th Infantry, the reconnaissance platoon, moved into a blocking position behind C Company and, along with B Company, fought to re-establish the original perimeter. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong launched diversionary attacks from the east and west. By this time, flights for air strikes were coming over the target area four times an hour, providing continuous air cover.

Initially, there was some difficulty in getting the flights loaded with cluster bombs; these were seen as essential and the most effective ordnance for the situation, as the Viet Cong were in the open, in close range to the Americans, and as the pilot can release the cluster bombs from a low level within 30 m of the Americans without harming them.


The main Viet Cong attack was beginning to be worn down by the American firepower. Light and heavy helicopter fire teams were aiming rockets and miniguns on the wood line to the northeast; artillery was massing along the east flank and in depth to the east. As the flights arrived with cluster bombs and attacked within thirty meters of the American positions, large groups of Viet Cong bodies formed. As the ordnance began taking its toll, the Viet Cong started to run, many throwing down their weapons.

In the meantime, Captain Cundiff led elements of C Company, reinforced by the 1st Platoon of B Company, in a massive counter-attack that pushed the remaining Viet Cong back into the American artillery barrages and air strikes and by 08:00 the perimeter was restored.

As the Viet Cong began withdrawing, the 1/2nd Infantry and the 1/16th Infantry passed through the 1/26th Infantry to pursue the Viet Cong to the east and northeast. However, they could not make substantial contact. Artillery and air strikes were ordered on suspected withdrawal routes and camps.

After the battle was over, the Americans found 491 Viet Cong bodies in their base area, but concluded that there were many more deaths. The Americans concluded that they had confronted three battalions of the 271st Viet Cong Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division and elements of the 70th Guard Regiment and that they had killed 609 and captured 5, and recovered over 50 weapons of all types. The Americans reported 17 killed and 102 wounded.


During the mortar attack on Fire Support Patrol Base C, where the 2d Brigade command post was located, Colonel Grimsley was wounded and evacuated, and General James F. Hollingsworth took command. Later that day, Colonel Haig took over.

During the battle, artillery from Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion 7th Field Artillery, under Captain David Ernest, had fired around 15,000 rounds, while the United States Air Force jet fighter-bombers recorded 103 sorties amounting to over 100 tons of ordnance dropped.

Haig felt that the air power, particularly cluster bombs, were the main factor in the US success, although he also acknowledged the artillery and mortar in grinding down the Viet Cong. However, he also claimed that without all of the components used in the American effort, it would have failed.

Haig claimed that Ap Gu and Operation Attleboro showed the Viet Cong were tactically and strategically naïve and inflexible at large-unit open combat.

NOTE:  There are volumes of books that list every battle / operation of the war.  This was not my intent here.

Information used for the series of battles in this article was obtained from The History Channel, Military Channel, YouTube, Tropic Lightning News, Wikipedia, and Vietnam Magazine.

Click below for more articles in this series:

Military Engagements (1 of 3)

Military Engagements (2 of 3)

Military Engagements (3 of 3)

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10 thoughts on “Military Engagements of the Vietnam War [Part III]

  1. outstanding excellent read as a Nam vet myself I find these portrayals to be exact and professionally written


  2. This is an excellent article. However, in my opinion, there is a major battle that is not mentioned, probably because information about it was suppressed when and after it occurred from March 12, to July 23, 1970. The battle lasted four and one half months and 248 American Soldiers were KIA inThe Battle for Fire Base Ripcord. One year earlier in the same area, the bad press over the battle for Hamburger Hill became the political reason news information about FB Ripcord was restricted and additional troop reinforcements were not sent in.


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