By Lt. Col (ret) Michael Christy
The defenders of these two special camps held their own against overwhelming odds. They suffered heavy casualties and lost many aircraft during the fight, and eventually, evacuated everyone. In the chaos, they left behind several American bodies, and it took two years before considering the area safe for a recovery team to enter. Read what happened during this battle in May 1968.
Kham Duc Special Forces Camp (A-105), was on the western fringes of Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, it was the only remaining border camp in Military Region I. Backup responsibility for the camp fell on the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal), based at Chu Lai on the far side of the province.
They had originally built the camp for President Diem, who enjoyed hunting in the area. The 1st Special Forces Detachment (A-727B) arrived in September 1963 and found the outpost to be an ideal border surveillance site with an existing airfield. The camp was on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by a rugged, virtually uninhabited jungle. Post dependents, camp followers, and merchants occupied the only village in the area, located across the airstrip. The Ngok Peng Bum ridge to the west and the Ngok Pe Xar mountain bordered the camp and airstrip, looming over Kham Duc to the east. Steeply banked streams full of rapids and waterfalls cut through the tropical wilderness. The Dak Mi River flowed past the camp over a mile distant, under the shadow of the Ngok Pe Xar. Five miles downriver was the small forward operating base of Ngok Tavak, defended by the 113-man 11th Mobile Strike Force Company with its eight Special Forces and three Australian advisors. Since Ngok Tavak was outside the friendly artillery range, 33 Marine artillerymen of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines, with two 105mm howitzers were at the outpost.
Ngok Tavak was attacked by an NVA Infantry Battalion
Capt. Christopher J. Silva, commander of Detachment A-105 helicoptered into Ngok Tavak on May 9, 1968, in response to growing signs of NVA presence in the area. Foul weather prevented his scheduled evening departure. A Kham Duc Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) platoon fleeing a local ambush also arrived and was posted to the outer perimeter. We later learned that the CIDG force contained VC infiltrators.
At 3:15 am on May 10, 1968, Ngok Tavak was attacked by an NVA infantry battalion. First, mortars and direct rocket fire followed by a frontal assault pounded the base. VC infiltrators dressed as Kham Duc CIDG soldiers moved toward the Marines in the fort yelling, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! Friendly, friendly” before lobbing grenades into the Marine howitzer positions and ran into the fort, where they shot several Marines with carbines and sliced claymore mine and communication wires.
The defenders suffered heavy casualties, but stopped the main assault and killed the infiltrators. The NVA dug in along the hill slopes and grenade-filled trenches where the Mobile Strike Force Soldiers were pinned by machine guns and rocket fire. An NVA flamethrower set the ammunition ablaze, banishing the murky flare-lighted darkness for the rest of the night. Sgt. 1st Class Harold M. Swicegood and the USMC platoon leader, Lt. Adams, were badly wounded and moved to the command bunker. Medic Spec 4 Blomgren reported the CIDG mortar crews had abandoned their weapons. Silva tried to operate the main 4.2-inch mortar but was wounded. At about 5 am, Sgt. Glenn Miller, an A-105 communications specialist, ran to join the Marine howitzer crews, and soon fell after leaving – dead, shot through the head.
The NVA advanced across the eastern side of Ngok Tavak and brought forward more automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. In desperation, the defenders called on US Air Force AC-47 “Spooky” gunships to strafe the perimeter and the howitzers, despite the possible presence of friendly wounded in the gun pits. The NVA countered with tear gas, but the wind kept drifting the gas over their own lines. After three attempts, they stopped. A grenade fight between the two forces lasted until dawn.
At daybreak, Australian Warrant Officers Cameron and Lucas, joined by Blomgren, led a CIDG counterattack. The North Vietnamese pulled back under covering fire, and the howitzers were retaken. The Marines fired the last nine shells and spiked the tubes. Later that morning, medical evacuation helicopters supported by covering airstrikes took out the seriously wounded, including Silva and Swicegood. Two CH46s landed 45 replacements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company, accompanied by Capt. Euge E. Makowski, but one helicopter was hit in the fuel line and forced down. A rocket hit another helicopter; it fell to the ground in flames, wrecking the small helipad. They placed the remaining wounded aboard a hovering helicopter. As it lifted off, two Mike Force soldiers and 1st Lt. Horace Fleming, one of the stranded aviation crewmen, grabbed the helicopter skids. All three fell to their deaths after the helicopter had reached an altitude of over one hundred feet.
The mobile strike force soldiers were exhausted and nervous. Ammunition and water were nearly exhausted, and Ngok Tavak was still being pounded by sporadic mortar fire. They asked permission to evacuate their positions, but were told to “hold on” as “reinforcements were on the way.” By noon, the defenders decided that aerial reinforcement or evacuation was increasingly unlikely, and night would bring certain destruction. An hour later, they abandoned Ngok Tavak.
Sgt. Thomas Perry, a medic from C Company, arrived at the camp at 5:30 am the morning of the 10th. He cared for the wounded and helped establish a defensive perimeter when they decided to evacuate the camp. As survivors were leaving, Sgt Perry saw Cordell J. Matheney, Jr., standing 20 feet away, as Australian Army Capt. John White formed the withdrawal column at the outer perimeter wire on the eastern Ngok Tavak hillside. They believed Perry was going to join the end of the column.
They hastily piled all the remaining weapons, equipment, and munitions into the command bunker and set it afire. Then, using a LAW, destroyed the grounded helicopter with a ruptured fuel line. Sgt. Miller’s body was not recovered.
After survivors had gone about 1 kilometer, they discovered that Perry was missing. They conducted efforts to locate both Perry and Miller, including a search by a group from Marine Battery D. They were searching along the perimeter when they were hit by enemy grenades and small-arms fire. They never found the men on the team or Perry. Included in this team were Pfc. Thomas Blackman; LCpl. Joseph Cook; Pfc. Paul Czerwonka; LCpl. Thomas Fritsch; Pfc. Barry Hempel; LCpl. Raymond Heyne; Cpl. Gerald King; Pfc. Robert Lopez; Pfc. William McGonigle; LCpl. Donald Mitchell; and LCpl. James Sargent. The remaining survivors evaded through dense jungle to a helicopter pickup point midway to Kham Duc. They completed the extraction shortly before 7 pm on the evening of May 10.
In concert with the Ngok Tavak assault, a heavy mortar and recoilless rifle attack blasted Kham Duc at 2:45 that same morning. Periodic mortar barrages ripped into Kham Duc throughout the rest of the day, while the Americal Division airlifted a reinforced battalion of the 196th Infantry Brigade into the compound. A Special Forces command party also landed, but the situation deteriorated too rapidly for their presence to have a positive effect.
The mortar attack on fog-shrouded Kham Duc resumed on the morning of May 11. The bombardment caused heavy losses among the frightened CIDG soldiers, who fled from their trenches across open ground, seeking shelter in the bunkers. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces (LLDB) commander remained hidden. CIDG soldiers refused orders to check the rear of the camp for possible North Vietnamese intruders. That evening, the 11th and 12th Mobile Strike Force companies flew to Da Nang, and half of the 137th CIDG Company from Camp Ha Thanh landed in exchange.
NVA Division, Began Closing the Ring Around Kham Duc
The 1st VC Regiment, 2nd NVA Division, began closing the ring around Kham Duc during the early morning darkness of May 12. Between 4:15 and 4:30 am, the camp and outlying positions came under heavy enemy attack. Outpost 7 fell within a few minutes. Outposts 5, 1, and 3 were reinforced by Americal troops but were in North Vietnamese hands by 9:30 am.
OP1 was manned by Pfc. Harry Coen, Pfc. Andrew Craven, Sgt. Joseph Simpson, and Spec 4 Julius Long from Company E, 2nd of the 1st Infantry. At about 4;15 am, when OP1 came under heavy enemy attack, Pfc. Coen and Spec 4 Long tried to man a 106-millimeter recoilless rifle. Survivors reported that in the initial enemy fire, they were knocked off the bunker. Both men again tried to man the gun again but knocked down a second time by RPG-7 Rocket Launcher fire.
Pfc. Craven, along with two other men, departed the OP1 at 8:30 am on May 12. They moved out 50 yards and could hear the enemy in their last position. At about 11 AM hours, as they were withdrawing to the battalion perimeter, they encountered an enemy position. Craven was the point man and opened fire. The enemy returned fire, and Craven fell with multiple chest wounds. The other two men could not recover him and hastily departed the area. Craven was last seen lying on his back, wounded, near the camp.
OP2 was being manned by 1st Lt. Frederick Ransbottom, Spec 4 Maurice Moore, Pfc. Roy Williams, Pfc. Danny Widmer, Pfc. William Skivington, Pfc. Imlay Widdison, and Spec 5 John Stuller, from the 2nd of the 3rd Infantry, when it came under attack. Informal questioning of survivors from this position stated that Pfc. Widdison and Spec 5 Stuller thought both died during the fight. However, the questioning was not sufficiently thorough to produce enough evidence to confirm their deaths.
The only information available concerning 1st Lt. Ransbottom, Spec 4 Moore, Pfc. Lloyd and Pfc. Skivington that Lt. Ransbottom allegedly radioed Pfc. Winder and Pfc. Williams in the third bunker, and told them he was shooting at the enemy as they entered his bunker.
Spec 4 Juan Jimenez, a rifleman assigned to Company A, 2nd of the 1st Infantry, occupied a defensive position when enemy mortar fire severely wounded him in the back. The Battalion Surgeon declared him dead in the early morning hours of May 12 and then had him carried to the helipad for evacuation. However, because of the situation, space was available in the helicopter for only the wounded, Jimenez’ remains were left behind.
At noon, the NVA launched a massive attack against the main compound. Planes hurling napalm, cluster bomb units, and 750-pound bombs stopped the charge into the final wire barriers. The decision was made by the Americal Division officers to call for immediate extraction.
The evacuation was disorderly and on the verge of complete panic. Enemy fire exploded one of the first extraction helicopters, blocking the airstrip. Engineers of Company A, 70th Engineer Battalion, frantically reassembled one of their dozers (previously torn apart to prevent capture) to clear the runway. The enemy blew eight more aircraft out of the sky.
When Pfc. Richard E. Sands, a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, was on an extracting CH47 helicopter, 50-caliber machine gun fire hit it at an altitude of 1500-1600 feet shortly after takeoff.
An incoming round caught Sands in the head as he sat near the door gunner. The helicopter made a controlled landing and then caught fire. During the evacuation from the burning helicopter, four personnel and a medic checked Sands and concluded that he died instantly. Because of the danger of incoming mortar rounds and the fire, officers ordered personnel attempting to remove Sands from the helicopter to abandon their attempt. Another helicopter soon landed to evacuate the remaining personnel from the area. Intense antiaircraft fire from the captured outposts caused grave problems. Control over the indigenous forces was difficult. One group of CIDG soldiers had to be held in trenches at gunpoint to prevent them from blocking the runway.
As the evacuation was in progress, members of Company A, 1/46, who insisted on boarding the aircraft first, shoved Vietnamese dependents out of the way. As more Americal infantry tried to clamber into the outbound planes, the outraged Special Forces staff convinced the Air Force to load only civilians on board the C130. They then watched as the civilians pushed children and weaker adults aside.
The crew aboard the U.S. Air Force C130 aircraft were Maj. Bernard Bucher, pilot; Staff Sgt. Frank Hepler, flight engineer; Maj. John McElroy, navigator; 1Lt. Steven Moreland, co-pilot; George Long, load master; Special Forces Capt. Warren Orr and an undetermined number of Vietnamese civilians.
The aircraft reported receiving ground fire on takeoff. The Forward Air Control (FAC) in the area reported that the aircraft exploded in mid-air and crashed in a fireball about one mile from camp. They believed all crew and passengers were dead, as the plane burned quickly, all destroyed except for the tail boom. They could not recover any remains from the aircraft.
U.S. personnel did not positively identify Captain Orr as being aboard the aircraft. He was last seen near it, helping civilians to board. However, a Vietnamese stated he had seen Orr board the aircraft and later positively identified him from a photograph. Rescue efforts were impossible because of the hostile threat in the area.
They gave the order to escape and evade. Spec 4 Julius Long was with Coen and Simpson. All three, wounded, tried to make their way back to the airfield about 350 yards away. As they reached it, they saw the last C130 departing. Coen, shot in the stomach, panicked and started running and shooting his weapon in all directions. Long tried to catch him, but could not. It was the last time he would see Coen. Long then carried Sgt. Simpson to a nearby hill, where they spent the night.
During that night, U.S. aircraft continually strafed and bombed the airfield. Fragments hit Long in the back, and Simpson died later that night. Long left him lying on the hill near the Cam Duc airfield and started his escape and evasion toward Chu Lai. The NVA captured him; releasing him in 1973 from North Vietnam.
Kham Duc was Abandoned to advancing NVA infantry at 4:33 P.m
The Special Forces Command Group was the last organized group out of the camp. As their helicopter soared into the clouds, Kham Duc was abandoned to advancing NVA infantry at 4:33 p.m. on May 12, 1968. The last Special Forces camp on the northwestern frontier of South Vietnam was destroyed.
They conducted two search and recovery operations near OP1 and OP2 and the Cam Duc airfield on July 18, 1970, and August 17, 1970. In these operations, the remains of personnel previously reported missing from this incident were recovered and subsequently identified. They were Spec 5 Bowers, Pfc. Lloyd, Sgt. Sisk, Pfc. Guzman-Rios and Staff Sgt. Carter. Sadly, they couldn’t complete an extensive search and excavation at OP1 and OP2 because of the tactical situation.
The U.S. Government assumed that all the missing at Kham Duc were killed in action until about 1983 when the father of one of the missing men discovered a Marine Corps document showing that four of the men were captured and taken prisoner. The document listed the four by name. Until then, the families were told of the possibility that they took no American prisoners except for Julius Long. A Vietnamese rallier identified the photograph of Roy C. Williams as positively having been a POW.
Until we obtained proof that the rest of the men lost at Ngok Tavak and KHAM Duc are dead, their families will always wonder if they are among those said to still be alive in Southeast Asia.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Warren Orr was from C-Team Headquarters in Da Nang and was sent to Kham Duc to assist in the evacuation of civilians. I was the XO of A-Team 102 and was at the C-Team to conduct some personal business when I ran into Orr as he was preparing to leave for Kam Duc. He was his usual friendly, high-spirited self, but I sensed some apprehension and fear, which is natural when you know you are going to a place where heavy fighting and dying is taking place. Had I been in his shoes, I would have felt the same. When I learned later that he died on a plane loaded with Vietnamese civilians, I felt terrible about his loss.
This article originally appeared on the Together We Served website. The author is the main editor for that website and has contributed many posts (Christy’s Collection) over the years. Here’s the direct link: https://blog.togetherweserved.com/2022/01/21/battle-of-ngok-tavak-kham-duc/
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