Do you think “Charlie” knew which bunkers on the firebase perimeter were manned by undependable soldiers that could help make it easier for them to breach the wire? On one night, Sappers did so and were running through the perimeter with satchel charges and blowing things up. One radio operator had to remain inside of the TOC and monitor the radios during the fight…his back was to the door and he expected his life to end at any moment. Here’s his recollection of what happened that night.
It was May 1970. I remember while in Vietnam, anytime I returned to our rear base from the field or from my job at a lonely Detached Tactical Operations Center (DETOC) in Thien Giao (northeast of Phan Thiet), I had to pull guard at a perimeter bunker. Our rear base was LZ Betty near the coastal town of Phan Thiet (see map below).
This is me at age 19 at LZ Betty shortly after coming back from manning the DETOC near Thien Gaio. The green ink was still wet on the picture stuck on this one when I sent to my parents. You can barely make out the backward words “AT PHAN THIET) in the middle of the pic. Standing at the perimeter edge with bunker #2 (behind me on my left) that fell that night.
LZ Betty west of the coastal city of Phan Thiet
I would always have to perform guard duty on the perimeter (buck sergeants and below). It sucked. I was either on the radio or pulling guard seven days a week in the Rear. I hated going to the Rear as I always got nailed with guard duty. I didn’t have to at Thien Giao (NW of Phan Thiet city and almost due North of LZ Betty), because I pulled ‘12 on 12 off’ seven days a week as a radio operator. I was just relief in the Rear.
The nights on guard duty were long, hot and b-o-o-o-r-r-ring. Occasionally a critter would trip a trip flare and light up the perimeter but boring.
The Security NCOIC and OIC would make their rounds in the jeep to make sure we all were vigilant and awake. Normally, our assigned bunker and towers were on the north side facing the South China Sea. But periodically we would be asked to cover a few of the other bunkers on the south-side if they had their units deployed and short personnel.
One night at Bunker #2, one of the stoners or potheads was out (snoozing) when we were on heightened alert (supposed to be two awake and on watch). I will leave his name anonymous because the names of the dead are on the website for LZ Betty. We will call him Raleigh. The other guy and I took turns pulling Raleigh’s guard time which I think was about 3-hour stints. We covered for him as he would have fallen asleep on duty anyway.
Raleigh would roll a Bong Son Bomber (a large joint rolled with two Zig Zag papers) and smoked all the time until his eyes were red and his words would start to slur a bit. Our original area of ops before Phan Thiet was near Bong Son (north of Qui Nhon) and they had these enormous joints the potheads loved. Pot worked miracles in sedating the guy. He got the ‘munchies’ and then ‘cut Zs.’ You would have to wake him every 5 minutes. Dedicated and reliable—-NOT!
One night, in late April 1970, The NCOIC suddenly popped up out of nowhere at 3AM climbing the ladder to the bunker. Scared the crap out of me to suddenly see someone appear behind me. As the senior enlisted there, he asked me why there was no second on duty with me (the stoner had crashed down below in the bunker). I tried making some excuses, and he asked me who was ‘sandbagging.’ I told him the guy’s name. He shook his head and said a curse word or two. He was aware of Raleigh’s ‘reliability’ and reputation.
He asked me, “I bet you think this is a waste to come out here every night and pull guard duty. I mean, we haven’t had our perimeter probed in months. It seems like a paranoid overkill to have two of you up at the same time—right? I mean, when was the last time Charlie tried coming through that barbed wire? But has it occurred to you our presence discourages them from trying? I mean it will only take one night…just one. This compound has been hit hard before. Now get his ass up here and if this happens again, I promise an Article 15 for everyone on this duty shift. One of these days you guys could save the rest of our asses.”
LZ Betty looking west
A few weeks later May 3rd, the Viet Cong launched a major hit on LZ Betty early in the morning, coming through the very perimeter I had been guarding. They blew up helicopters and several bunkers and overran part of the compound.
LZ Betty looking north toward the South China Sea
The VC came through the perimeter toward the bottom of the picture heading northward over the airstrip. Seven VC sappers got through the southern perimeter, planted satchel charges on the helicopters and several of the bunkers. Number 2 bunker is on the bottom toward the left. My normally assigned bunker was Number 2 (we used to say it was Number 2; ca-ca—the crap).
I didn’t have guard duty that night because I was now pulling full-time duty at my radio at the 1/50th Infantry Battalion TOC (Tactical Operations Center) as a battalion radio operator. Previously, I had manned a radio for the DETOC near Thien Giao after a stretch in the boonies as RTO. I had been there for months before it was closed down as difficult to defend and our AOs had shifted. Getting the fulltime position at the TOC was great as I was just filling in as relief before returning from Thien Giao. I had just been notified a few days before that I would be full-time at the TOC.
I had just completed the last of my Sitreps (Situation Reports) check calls to every position (towers, bunkers, etc.). It was a lot of “Negative Sit Rep” that evening and then into the early morn.
It was quiet and boring in the TOC. At almost 2 AM, I told the staff sergeant, who was the NCOIC that night, that I was going to go to my hooch and grab some C-Rations, as I was hungry. He told me to go as it was extremely quiet.
I stepped out of the TOC bunker into the early morning air and heard an explosion followed by another. My first thoughts was it was outgoing rounds.
I looked toward the south and saw the orange glow of a fire and it was inside our perimeter. Then there was a barrage of explosions. I turned and ran back inside yelling ‘incoming!’
I didn’t need to as the NCOIC was busy with the radios and they were chattering with yells and beaucoup traffic from the entire south-side of our compound. Every radio was blaring, “Tango Three, taking incoming.” or “Tango Three this is Whiskey Kilo-Five. We have Chuck in the wire. Repeat…we have Chuck in the wire.” Chuck or Charlie was a nickname for the VC. Then an explosion and no more from Whiskey Kilo-Five. Tango Three would have been our call sign that month as the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) for HQ. I could hear explosions and gunfire over all the transmissions. It was chaotic.
The NCOIC told me to go wake the battalion commander and XO. I dropped my mike and ran for the door just as the battalion CO and XO came running through yelling “What’s going down?” The battalion sergeant major was shortly behind them, all of them suiting up with flak jackets and gear. The sergeant-major was in his OD green underwear, looking odd with full combat gear on over his skivvies and sandals.
As the firefight worsened, we were getting reports of various bunker positions falling, orderly rooms blown up, etc . We couldn’t get any birds (helicopters) in the air because they all had been taken out with satchel charges at the start. Those explosions along with the mortar rounds were what I heard when I was leaving the TOC that morning.
I was back on the radio trying to get air support because we had none. I was also calling in Medevacs or medics for the wounded. It was hectic and chaotic. Again, no choppers at our base were functional. The nearest ones were at Phan Rang. about 130 klicks away.
Then the battalion CO yells at the battalion sergeant major, “Sergeant Major, take Smitty up and secure this bunker…NOW!” We had already known the VC had overrun the southern perimeter and was blowing up buildings and structures heading toward our position which was on a hill looking north toward the sea.
The Commo NCOIC, I can’t recall his name, leans over and whispers to me, “Ingalls, if you hear a clip-clop sound, it is a grenade rolling across the wood floor—dive and cover your head. Don’t try to look—just dive.”
Inside the TOC at LZ Uplift
Now our radios are on benches facing away from the door so my back is toward the door. I am now dealing with all the mad traffic on the radios, yelling situation updates to the CO and XO. communicating their instructions over the radio to field personnel, while now concerned about my personal safety. and no way to see it coming.
My back was toward the door. I would never see the end—only hear it—now that was scary. I kept waiting for that clip-clop sound of a rolling Chi Com grenade on the wooden floor or the sound of an AK 47 spraying the command center.
Fortunately, we were able to secure the compound and run the intruders off. There were some birds in the air returning to Phan Rang (which we found out later was being attacked at the same time) that night who responded to our call for help. We were also able to get a Marine CH-34 in the air from a returning mission from another base. Our 105mm artillery started firing ‘beehives’ anti-personnel rounds (metal flechettes) at low trajectory in the perimeter.
We lost 6 KIAs and 35+ WIAs U.S. causalities that night.
One of the dead was the stoner, Raleigh, who was in that same bunker where sappers slipped through and cut the throat of the guards on that bunker (#2) and took it over. One survived with serious injuries- the other two, including Raleigh, didn’t. I can only imagine how they overran that bunker.
As a battalion RTO at the TOC, I was the guy calling in support and Medevac and communicating with the remaining bunkers that had not been overrun along with a relief force of mechanics, cooks, clerks, and anyone we could rush in.
Look at this account (link below) to see what happened to my bunker(#2) and Raleigh that evening. Could have been me that night as Raleigh was probably asleep. I was shot in the leg at a different location which I handled fairly well but there is something spooky about having your throat slit while you are sleeping.
Destroyed Company orderly room
I later trembled for over an hour thinking I could have been in bunker #2 with my throat being slit that morning or we could have had the VC take out our TOC.
I have never forgotten that early morning. There is a growing sense of dread knowing the enemy is getting closer. You hear it on the radio and in the voices on the radio. You hear it in the sounds getting louder outside. At any moment it could be all over and my back is to the door.
To read more about the battle of LZ Betty, please visit: Battle of LZ Betty, Phan Thiet
Thank you, brother, for another fine contribution. Thank you for your service and sacrifice! Welcome Home!
Preston Ingalls has contributed an earlier article to this website titled, “Camping with Mary Kate.” If you’re interested in reading his other piece, please click this link: https://cherrieswriter.com/2020/03/01/camping-with-mary-kate-guest-post/
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