March 19, 1967, our Battalion minus ‘C Company’ deployed from Dau Tieng by fixed-wing air transport to a staging area near Soui Da Vietnam, this was the beginning of Operation Junction City II in preparation for our units to assault into Landing Zone Gold. We were not alerted to the possibility of it being a “Hot LZ” or that enemy resistance was expected. The flight time to the LZ was short, I was on the 5th Chopper sitting on the floor with my feet on the skids, in a flight of 10 aircraft, and as we approached the LZ it was obviously a very “Hot” landing. The Chopper to my front was hit and exploded mid landing about 25 feet in the air, the blast and concussion blew me out of the chopper some 10-15 feet up. I hit the ground hard, my rucksack over my head and helmet blown off, rifle in the dirt and hit my head on something hard.
The enemy snipers were firing from the nearby tree line, leaving no time to gather myself or assess my injuries or pain, fear and adrenalin raging, confusion and reaction firing my weapon into the tree line suppressing any enemy fire if that were possible. The flights of choppers continued coming in, three of the downed choppers were burning, bodies and parts from the explosion were everywhere. The morning wore on and the enemy action reduced and ended, but the day was far from over. I was detailed to take my weapons platoon and assist in picking up our dead and gathering the body part of those in the choppers blown up. I was stunned and still somewhat dazed, from the hard fall, sore knee, stiff neck, and a crease in my skull still there today 52 plus years later. The bodies were difficult to gather, one was a soldier torn in half, the skin of the upper torso yellowed like a neoprene rubber, the lower half still with his pants and boots on sickened me. My first real introduction to the horrors of war.
This is one soldier’s story:
On 19 March 1967 elements of the 3d Brigade made an opposed airmobile assault into a small clearing near the abandoned village of Suoi Tre in central War Zone C, Republic of Viet Nam, at coordinates XT385708. Their mission was to establish a Fire Support Base at the location of the air landing to support further offensive operations. The Fire Support Base was code-named “Gold” after the code name of the landing zone. By late afternoon on 19 March the 2d Bn 77th Artillery (105mm) had been airlifted into position. On 20 March the 2d Bn 12th Inf, under the command of LTC Joe F. Elliot, had moved west on a search and destroy mission against Viet Cong forces suspected to be in the area. Less than two battalions of U. S. Troops now remained at Fire Support Base Gold, the 3d Bn 22d Inf (minus Company C), commanded by LTC John A. Bender, and the 2d Bn, 77th Artillery, commanded by LTC Jack Vessey. Total complement of U. S. troops at Fire Support Base Gold was less than 450. To the south, the 2d Bn 22d Inf (M) under the command of LTC Ralph Julian, and the 2d Bn 34th Armor (minus company B) under the command of LTC Raymond L. Stailey were attempting to cross the Suoi Samat River and join the 2d Bn 12th Inf in an offensive sweep to the west. During the afternoon of 20 March the Brigade Commander observed 30 – 35 Viet Cong 2,000 meters southwest at Fire Support Base Gold. The enemy was engaged with artillery and all units were alerted to the possibility of enemy activity.
At first light on 21 March 1967, in accordance with standing operating procedures, a stand-to was conducted in FSB Gold and a security patrol from 3d Bn, 22d Inf began a sweep of the perimeter. This action prematurely triggered an attack on FSB Gold which subsequently proved to be the largest single attack and the most catastrophic enemy defeat of the war to date.
As the security patrol moved to sweep the perimeter, the enemy force began a heavy mortar attack at 0640 hours followed minutes later by a ground assault from the north, east, and south. This enemy force was later determined to be approximately 2,500 men strong, composed of three battalions of the 272d VC Main Force Regiment reinforced by two attritional battalions, and supported by the U-80 Artillery Regiment. The mortar attack consisted of some 500-700 rounds of both 60mm and 82mm. At Brigade Headquarters, thirteen thousand meters southwest, an alert that FSB Gold was under attack was relayed to all elements of the Brigade. B Btry, 3/13 Arty (115 SP), C Btry 1/8 Arty (105mm), B Btry, 2/32 Arty (8-inch and 175mm), B Btry, 2/35 Arty (155 SP), all located within supporting distance of FSB Gold, commenced firing preplanned defensive fires into every clearing large enough for the enemy to use as a mortar position around Fire Support Base Gold. The Brigade Commander, Colonel Marshall B. Garth, and the Brigade Sergeant Major, AMG Bill V. Woods, boarded the only available aircraft, an OH 23-G helicopter, and flew from Soui Da to the scene of the battle.
Simultaneously, the Forward Air Controller from Dau Tieng and fighter pilots from Bien Hoa Airbase scrambled their aircraft. Less than 20 minutes from the impact of the first mortar round, the small force at FSB Gold was engaged in a bitter, hand-to-hand struggle with the enemy.
The situation inside FSB Gold had by this time become so critical that howitzers within the perimeter were lowered to fire directly into the waves of advancing enemy soldiers. The tenaciously held perimeter of the Fire Support Base had been penetrated in the north and southeast by 0751 hours. During this penetration, the enemy succeeded in overrunning and destroying one M-55 Quad .50 caliber machine gun and penetrating one of the howitzer positions. The other Quad .50 MG had been destroyed by an anti-tank round during the initial attack. In all, two howitzers were destroyed by mortar and anti-tank rounds, and nine others were damaged. In addition, many of the more than 500 RPG-II anti-tank rounds were fired into the support base and landed in the ammunition stores. In spite of the withering small arms fire and the exploding stores of 105mm ammunition, the gun crews remained at their guns, cannibalizing the destroyed howitzers to keep the damaged guns firing. Crew members from the destroyed guns carried ammunition and stepped in to fill vacancies as casualties occurred in the operating crews. All cooks, clerks, and other available personnel of the artillery battalion which had been formed into a preplanned reaction force, now moved to block the penetration of the infantry’s perimeter. By this time the infantry soldiers on the perimeter of the FSB who were subjected to the brunt of the assault were fighting from isolated positions as the determined enemy force penetrated and encircled the U.S. defensive positions. Small elements of the U. S. soldiers fighting fiercely in hand-to-hand combat continued to resist the assaulting enemy. As the fighting intensified and ammunition stocks depleted friendly troops reacted quickly to the situation, seizing weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded enemy. During the action, the penetrating Viet Cong threatened the Command Post of the 3d Battalion, 22d Infantry and the Fire Direction Center of the 2d Battalion, 77th Artillery. These positions were successfully defended, however, and the enemy assault was repulsed after suffering numerous casualties. Twenty-six dead Viet Cong soldiers were found within 50 meters of the artillery Fire Direction Center. By the time the relief force reached the scene of the battle, it was estimated that over half of the troops on the eastern portion of the perimeter had exhausted their own ammunition and were using captured AK-47s and Chicom carbines.
Airstrikes were called in on the outskirts of the perimeter and all supporting artillery units were firing final protective fires around the support base. Nearly 4,100 rounds of varying caliber were used in the accomplishment of their mission. When the Forward Air Controller directing U.S. fighter planes was shot down by enemy antiaircraft weapons, another plane was made available at Dau Tieng and a replacement FAC was on station within minutes.
Alerted at 0655 hours and ordered to move to the aid of the beleaguered defenders of FSB Gold, the 2/12 Inf, 2/22d Inf (M), and 2/34 Armor pressed on from positions as far away as 3,000 meters. As they started to move, the 2d Bn 12th Inf was subjected to heavy concentrations of enemy mortar fire in an attempt to delay their progress. Treating their wounded on the move, the 2d Bn 12th Inf continued to push on through 2,500 meters of heavy bamboo and underbrush toward their objective at FSB Gold. Harassed by sniper fire and blocked by security elements of the enemy’s main attack force, the 2d Bn 12th Inf continued to advance, moving the 2,500 meters overland through dense jungle against a determined enemy in less than two hours. The first elements of the 2d Bn, 12th Inf entered the southwestern part of the perimeter minutes before the mechanized elements arrived at 0900 hours.
For the 2/22d Inf (M) and the 2/34th Armor, the order to reinforce meant crossing the Suoi Samat River which had already halted their advance for 24 hours while they searched for a suitable crossing site the previous day. The success of the enemy effort was dependent upon this natural obstacle to prevent the reinforcement of FSB Gold. Realizing the urgency of the situation, a personnel carrier was quickly brought forward with the idea of sinking it in the river to serve as an expedient bridge for the remaining elements. Meanwhile, A Co, 2/22d Inf (M), attached to the 2/34th Armor, located a possible crossing site and had pushed one APC across. The first armored vehicle reached the far side of the river at approximately 0745 hours. The lighter Personnel Carriers were pushed through first and the heavier tanks of the 2d Bn, 34th
Armor brought up the rear.
Having been repulsed on their first attempt to overrun the FSB, the enemy mortared the objective once again and launched a second determined ground assault. This second assault was interrupted as mechanized columns of the 2/22d Inf (M) and foot elements of the 2/12th Inf almost simultaneously broke into the clearing at 0900 hours, trapping the enemy in a murderous crossfire. The 2/34th Armor was trailing and swept in immediately behind the mechanized battalion. Both the mechanized and armored elements passed through the 2d Bn, 12th Inf and swept around the southern and eastern half of the FSB while enemy troops swarmed over the APCs. The heavy guns of the tanks were firing direct fire at point-blank range into the teeming mass of troops as the enemy panicked and attempted to flee. After the mechanized units assisted in breaking the force of the attack in the eastern and southern flanks, the 2d Bn, 12th Inf moved in on the west and northwest, sweeping the entire perimeter and neutralizing the small remaining pockets of resistance. The full force of available air and artillery support was brought to bear against the Viet Cong force which was now desperately trying to break contact.
At 0931 hours, during the first lull in the fighting, with dazed VC still wandering inside the perimeter, the Brigade Commander directed his UH1-D Command ship to land in the center of the battle area. Without hesitation, Colonel Garth directed that his helicopter be used to evacuate the wounded while he remained at FSB Gold to personally direct the conduct of the action.
Behind the scenes of the fighting in Suoi Tre there was another kind of battle going on, one that drew on the resources and ingenuity of all support personnel in the Brigade. All available ammunition stores for both howitzers and small arms were rapidly being depleted. Thousands of meters away, at Dau Tieng Base Camp, at Suoi Da, and at Tay Ninh, the support and service elements of the Brigade were moving and loading tons of ammunition on UH1-d and CH-47 helicopters which flew, despite a heavy cloud cover, to begin the tedious and dangerous task of resupplying ammunition to the engaged units. At FSB Bronze, the primary support base for FSB Gold, the first resupply of howitzer ammunition was airlifted in minutes before the last on-hand round was slammed into the breach of a howitzer of C Btry, 1st Bn, 8th Arty.
By 1145 hours the intensity of the fight had tapered off and there remained only the slow task of clearing the battlefield. The scope of the battle was so vast that five days later security and ambush patrols from FSB Gold found weapons and bodies and captured wounded prisoners up to 1500 meters away.
Total U. S. casualties for the battle of Suoi Tre were 31 KIA and 187 wounded in action, 92 of which were evacuated. The remaining wounded were treated on the scene and returned to duty. By mid-afternoon of 21 March all U. S. personnel were accounted for with none missing or captured.
The enemy killed numbered 647 by body count. Ten prisoners, including one wounded prisoner found two days later, were captured. Two of the prisoners later died of wounds. From the patrol reports of the 2d Bn 22d Infantry and interrogation of prisoners and defectors, it was conservatively estimated that at least 200 more of the enemy were killed and evacuated.
Meanwhile, two defensive ambush patrols from 3d Bn, 22d Inf, composed of 15 men from Company A, 3d Bn, 22d Infantry at XT384709 and 12 men from Company B, 3d Bn, 22d Infantry at XT388702 reported “hundreds” of Viet Cong all-around their positions. The patrols were told to remain in their ambush sites and move back to the perimeter at the first opportunity. Prior to their withdrawal, they reported enemy carrying parties pulling “hundreds” of dead and wounded VC to the rear. Both patrols eventually made it back to the perimeter, however, nearly half their original number were either dead or wounded.
The next few hours the euphoria of the unit was overwhelming. The day is a blur, not sure if the Generals were there before or after we collected the bodies and parts of the enemy. The newspaper article said there were 423 bodies, but that was in the first few hours, as the mass grave that was dug had over 647 bodies and parts in it, looking like a scene from newsreels of the WWII Holocaust. My inner humanity suffered a huge tear in the fabric of what I have always believed, “Thou Shall Not Kill” to me even a small animal being killed was offensive, and here I am looking into a hole in the ground with 647 bodies that we killed. Yes, the reality is nearly certain that if we had not killed those enemy soldiers in front of that 105, most of the remaining 380 of our unit may have died. Even so, that does not reduce the feelings of guilt that I feel.
Information for this article was obtained from MARSHALL B. GARTH, Colonel, Infantry, and Michael D. Doolittle and can be reviewed: https://www.vietnamtripledeuce.org/battles.htm#SuoiTre
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