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War Stories 11
By- Ron Leonard
In the annals of Military History, and the Vietnam War in particular due to it's longevity, this incident would be little more than an obscure event except to those brave men that were there that rainy day in August 1968. To those men that survived, and to the family members of those who paid the ultimate price, this article maybe will help them find some missing answers.
Had it not been for William Seay being awarded the nations highest award, “The Medal Of Honor” that day, albeit posthumously, the events of this day would be just another obscure day in “Vietnam War” history.
Because of William Seay, historians have critiqued, researched, analyzed, and written many articles on this incident. All of those writings mostly have to do with William Seays actions themselves, the actions of the men of the 48th Transportation Group, and the rescuing Infantry units that helped repel the ambush.
I am going to attempt to supply some incite into the causes of the ambush, not only due to it's logistics, but in the events and poor decision making leading up to the occurrence of the ambush that allowed it to happen in the first place. I will also add the aviation accounts of this incident that have never been written about that I can find, and I have thoroughly researched it at the National Archives.
I was a crewchief on one of the “Diamondhead” gunships of B. Company 25th Aviation Battalion that spent many hours in the air in defense of the convoy personnel, the infantry units, and the protection of the convoy itself. So in part this will be a first hand description of the events of those two days as I remember them, and as other members of the flight crews that were there recollect.
Most historians will tell you that the battle lasted nine hours. Maybe the main assault lasted nine hours, but gunship support was required on and off until 1700 the following day to assist in the removal of the wounded and dead, deliver re-supply of food and ammunition, and protect the convoy from the Viet Cong as sporadic fighting continued throughout the convoys recovery. This information is validated from our Daily Journals, After Action Reports, and our flight crew's memories.
In late August 1968 it was Monsoon Season in Cu Chi Vietnam, which is located 25 miles northwest from Saigon in Hau Nghai Province along Hwy 1, which lies on the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng, two of the 25th Divisions main base camps. Everywhere you looked was a mud hole that more resembled a lake than a simple puddle. During this time of year the clouds hung very low to the ground, at times they seemed so low you could almost reach up and touch them, which made flying very dangerous if not totally impossible. It rained nearly every afternoon at 3.pm.; you could set your clock by it. The sky would turn almost black, then just open up with raindrops the size of golf balls it seemed, and the rainwater temperature being actually warm. On more than one occasion I had grabbed a bar of soap and stepped outside the hooch to take a bath as the rain ran off the roof of the hooch in torrents. It was better than our make shift shower, and the water flow was more like a waterfall. Everywhere you looked was water. The company area would become “Lake Diamondhead” as the drainage system couldn't commence to keep up with that amount of rainfall.
The roads in the AO (Area of Operations) were marginally better. They were kept passable because all of the AO Fire Support Bases (FSB's), and Base Camps had to be supplied by road. It took a convoy per day to keep the supplies and ammunition rolling to support our war effort.
To understand this ambush, its location, and it's outcome you first have to have a little back ground on the 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, who's responsibility it was to protect the convoy, and the circumstances leading up to it and during it. I will do my best to keep it brief and to the point.
The Commanding General (CG) of the 25th Infantry Division was Major General Ellis W. Williamson, who had just assumed command earlier in the month of August 1968.
The 1st Brigade at this time was commanded by Col Duquesne “Duke” Wolf who to had just assumed the command of 1st Brigade earlier in August. He was responsible for US Army operations in the Cambodian border area from the Angels Wing north along the Vam Co Dong River, which locally we called the Oriental River, up to the Parrots Beak, War Zone C, and then south to Dau Tieng. This Tactical Operational Area Of Responsibility (TOAR) was eighty-five kilometers in depth (north to south), and approximately sixty-five kilometers wide (east to west). Within this TOAR were the Michelin, Ben Cui, Big Rubber, Little Rubber plantations, and War Zone “C”. All of which were staging and base camp areas for the 33rd, and 275th VC/NVA regiments.
Both the 1st and 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division usually defended this AO, with the 1st Brigade TOAR being Tay Ninh and the surrounding area, and the 3rd Brigade TOAR being Dau Tieng and the surrounding area.
With the feared third phase of TET (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) the entire 3rd Brigade was pulled in to the Saigon area and it's approach routes leaving just 1st Brigade to do the job of both. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
During the previous week 17-24 August the 1st Brigade endured thirteen separate attacks of battalion and/or regimental strength. These included seven separate attacks against U.S. bases of the 1st Brigade. Two regimental-size attacks on FSB Buell II. Two regimental-size size attacks against the 1st Brigade TOSB at Tay Ninh, two battalion-sized attacks at FSB Rawlins II, and one battalion-sized attack against the signal facility atop Nui Ba Den Mountain. The remaining six enemy attacks were directed against units of the 1st Brigade in order to destroy U.S. combat units, to cut the MSR in order to isolate the 1st Brigade, to dominate and control the Ben Cui Rubber Plantation, and finally to impede and harass units of the 1st Brigade by ambushes along the main supply routes of Tay Ninh Province. By the 4th day of the VC/NVA offensive, 1st Brigade Intelligence (S-2) had determined that sixteen thousand fully combat ready troops of the NVA 5th and 9th Divisions accompanied by an anti-aircraft battalion, and two Viet Cong battalions were operating in conjunction with the NVA Divisions. The feared third phase of TET had already started, which contradicted the Intelligence that the 25th Division CG was operating under, although captured documents stated that Hue and Saigon were the major objectives of the enemy offensive.
Despite warnings by 1st Brigade (S-2) Intelligence, that Saigon was not the intended target, the surrounding countryside, particularly Tay Ninh was, went largely unheeded. Just a day before the ambush at Ap Nhi, even though the enemy offensive was four days old, the CG ordered a further reduction-in-force of the 1st Brigade. The 2/34th Armor was transferred from 1st Brigade to Divisional control and moved immediately to Cu Chi at 0600 25 August. The CG further directed that the 1st Brigade would still be held responsible for all its missions within its TOAR with the stipulation that the “MSR clear and secure” mission was to be supplied only as time and manpower would allow.
This reduction-in-force was ordered by the CG without prior consultation with the 1st Brigade. Colonel Wolf, Commanding Officer of the 1st Brigade, gravely concerned about the potential dangers to the division, and to the brigade, of this further reduction in force, personally conveyed to the CG his estimate of the situation. This included his concern that the assigned combat maneuver forces were barely sufficient to defend the six U.S. bases in the TOAR, and definitely insufficient to react to an enemy attack of even battalion size; therefore the reduction-in-force would not permit the reconnaissance-in-force and posting of security along the MSR essential to the free passage of the daily division supply convoy. Unfortunately this appeal by Colonel Wolf was ignored and the CG's order for the reduction-in-force stood.
Colonel Wolf objected bitterly to the CG to no avail. He requested one battalion of troops be returned to assist with the mission given him. General Williamson again denied him the troops.
Thus, during the days of 25-27 August the 1st Brigade was limited to the following combat maneuver, and combat support troops.
Infantry: Three rifle companies of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry (of which one was atop Nui Ba Den mountain), and three mechanized infantry companies of the 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry (Mechanized). Not one company was at full strength. Most of the companies only had three platoons instead of four and they to were undermanned.
Artillery: Two 105-mm batteries of the 7th Battalion, 11th Artillery, and two batteries of 155-mm medium artillery.
Armor and armored cavalry: None
Included within the 1st Brigades (TOAR) were:
1. Defense of six US army bases of which two were Division Base Camps, Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng, each a Tactical Operations Support Base (TOSB) capable of supporting two divisions of troops for a limited time.
2. FSB's at Bao Co (Saint Barbara), 6 kilometers north of Nui Ba Den, Buell II, two kilometers west of Nui Ba Den, Rawlins III four kilometers east of Tay Ninh, Nui Ba Den Signal Facility located atop Nui Ba Den.
3. Security of the Main Supply route (MSR): Each day sweep on foot for enemy mines and secure the MSR (by posting combat maneuver forces along it) in the 1st Brigade TAOR, from the village of Go Dau Ha, to Tay Ninh TOSB, to FSB Buell II, To FSB Bau Co, and to the Rock Crusher's site, to FSB Rawlins III, and to Dau Tieng TOSB, (a total road distance of approximately 98 kilometers).
4. Conduct offensive operations to destroy or capture the main Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces in the 1st Brigade TAOR. This was to be accomplished with the troops on hand.
5. Support the internal defense and development of Tay Ninh Province, to include the defense of Tay Ninh City in combined operations with the Vietnamese Territorial Militia forces (Regional Force Companies and Popular Force Platoons) of Tay Ninh Province. This was more for political reasons. It would be unthinkable to lose a Provincial Capital.
Such was the day of August 25, 1968, a typical monsoon day in the III Corp tactical zone, low clouds, poor visibility, and intermittent rain. In the morning hours, a large re-supply convoy was being assembled at Long Binh near Saigon. It was made up of 81 trucks of the 48th Transportation Group. The convoy makeup was Refer Trucks in front, supply trucks next in line, then fuel trucks and ammo trucks at the end of the convoy. The reasoning for this was if one of the fuel trucks or ammo trucks was ambushed and exploded it wouldn't stop the convoy in its tracks, the lead trucks could speed away from danger. Their mission was to transport a load of ammunition, fuel, and other supplies to the 25th Divisions 1st Brigade base camp at Tay Ninh, which was located just seven miles from the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh Province, just a stones throw from the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Tay Ninh is located approximately 45 miles northwest of Saigon and is usually but a six-hour trip with the mandated convoy speed limit of twenty miles per hour. For many of the truckers this particular trip would turn into an eternity. The convoy followed MSR 1 from Saigon, through the village of Hoc Mon, west past the 25th Infantry Division base camp at Cu Chi, through the village of Trang Bang, across the bridge at Soui Cao Creek, also known as Soui-Cide bridge because of the many ambushes that occurred there, on to Go Dau Ha where MSR 1 intersects MSR 22. The convoy would turn northwest onto MSR 22 through the village of Ap Nhi which lies approximately 4.5 miles northwest of the intersection, and on to Tay Ninh some twenty miles distant to complete the trip.
Road security from the intersection of MSR 1 and MSR 22 at Go Dau Ha was the responsibility of the 1st Brigade 25th Infantry Division, but due to the reduction-in-force of troops ordered by the CG during the days leading up to 25 August, that day it was impossible for 1st Brigade to provide this security. Only 8 gun jeeps of the Military Police (M P) secured the entire convoy. These gun jeeps were lightly armed with one M-60 machine gun, and a crew made up of only a gunner and the driver.
Due to a lack of communication by 25th Division commanders, the 48th Transportation Group was unaware there would be no road security supplied by the 1st Brigade as it usually was, nor were they made aware that an enemy offensive had been underway for the past week. Had they known, they could have been better prepared, more observant, and had an increased amount of ammunition issued to the convoys drivers and other personnel beyond their basic load of 100 rounds.
The sleepy little village of Ap Nhi, stretches about a mile along the south side of MSR 22 and is predominately a farming community. Directly across the road from Ap Nhi lies part of the Ben Cui Rubber Plantation, which also is about a mile long. This section of the Ben Cui Rubber Plantation is known locally as the “Little Rubber”. It to is about a mile long and consists of mature rubber trees that grew within 15 feet of the MSR. Between the MSR and the rubber trees there is an existing drainage trench and an earthen berm.
Unknowingly to U.S. forces the night of 24 August, elements of a VC reinforced battalion of 5 companies had moved into Ap Nhi village and made preparations to ambush the Tay Ninh supply convoy on the morning of the 25th.
Four of these VC companies were positioned in the trench and adjoining rubber trees on the western edge of the Little Rubber Plantation along MSR 22 for a distance of 2,500 meters. The fifth company occupied positions in the village, which also extended for 2,500 meters along the opposite side of MSR 22. The enemy had established strong points at each end of the ambush. On the north end a Buddhist temple on the east side of MSR 22, and on the south end a fortified farm house some 50 meters east of MSR 22. It was a bold and daring daylight ambush that was tactically well planned and executed. The ambush site provided cover and concealment on both sides of MSR 22, and the establishment of strong points at both ends of the ambush reduced the chances of an attacking force “rolling up” the ambush along it's vulnerable length. Furthermore, the ambush was sited at a point almost equidistant from the 25th Infantry Division base camp at Cu Chi and the 1st Brigade TOSB at Tay Ninh, thus requiring reaction forces to travel the greatest possible distance.
Furthermore none of the available artillery was within range of the ambush site and would have to be re-positioned to be effective, which would take time. The weather was also on the VC's side. The rain, poor visibility, and low ceiling prevented air support from being used initially, as the weather and low ceiling conditions made flying to dangerous, if not totally impossible.
At 1145 on the morning of the 25th as the lead elements of the convoy entered Ap Nhi it was misty and raining with the ceiling below 200 feet. The convoy met what appeared to be a column of ARVN soldiers marching single file along the north side of the MSR adjacent to the Little Rubber plantation. As the lead vehicles of the convoy departed the village of Ap Nhi, and the fuel and ammo trucks were in the kill zone of the ambush, the supposed ARVN troops turned and opened fire on the convoy. They were actually VC soldiers dressed in ARVN uniforms. The initial shot of the ambush was the signal to begin the assault on the convoy from the VC troops positioned in the “Little Rubbber”. Almost immediately at least one fuel truck at the front of the kill zone was hit and blew up which stalled the remainder of the convoy as it blocked the road and burned. Thirty-one trucks in front of the fuel tanker sped away and escaped, but fifty were caught in the kill zone. Seconds later an ammunition trailer at the rear of the convoy was hit and was burning and cooking off ammunition.
The initial assault had been against those two vehicles to seal the convoy in place and left trucks scattered along MSR 22 for nearly a mile between the burning vehicles. The initial targets other than the two trucks that were burning were the gun jeeps and vehicles with radios.
Almost as soon as the column came to a halt, the enemy charged from the rubber trees. They were firing automatic weapons, throwing grenades, and were supported by machine gun, and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) fire in an attempt to overrun the drivers and take control of the trucks. From hastily established firing positions, the truckers gallantly returned fire.
Specialist Fourth Class William Seay of the 62nd Transportation Company (TC) was one of those drivers. He had been driving a truck laden with artillery charges. When the attack began, he immediately leaped from his truck and took cover behind the left rear dual wheel of his truck. About 20 feet away Sellman was behind the dual wheels of the trailer. As two VC soldiers attempted to charge his truck he dispatched them both with a burst from his M-16. All along the line the drivers held their ground until the attackers had been pushed back to behind the berm. Within minutes the initial attack had been blunted, but the battle was just beginning. For the next nine hours the VC attempted to wipe out the small groups of drivers and convoy personnel concentrated along the roadway.
The Americans soon realized that they were not only being subjected to automatic weapons fire from the berm across the road, and the rubber plantation, but from snipers in the treetops as well. Seay spotted one of the snipers in a tree about 75 meters to his right front. Aiming around the right side of the truck tire, he fired a burst from his M-16, killing the sniper. Minutes passed, and then a grenade thudded to the ground and rolled under the trailer within a few feet of Sellman, who was well aware that the trailer was loaded with 175mm artillery shells. Sellman later reported that Seay left his position without hesitation, exposing himself to intense fire in the open ground between the truck and the trailer wheels, picked up the grenade and hurled it back across the road. Four VC jumped from their cover and tried to run, but they were killed when the grenade exploded.
Minutes later, when another grenade landed close to Seays group, Sellman kicked it off the road behind them. No sooner had the dust cleared from that explosion than another grenade rolled under the truck and Seay again retrieved it and threw it back across the road at the attackers. Just as Seay returned to his cover he and Sellman killed two more VC trying to crawl through a fence. A few seconds later, an NVA bullet tore through the back of Seays right hand, shattering a bone in his wrist. Yelling that he was hit and for Sellman to cover him, Seay ran back to his rear looking for someone to help him with his wound.
Positioned in a ditch on the west side of the road, Seay had found a group of six truckers who helped him with his wound. Unable to use his weapon with his right hand, Seay lay down to rest in the roadside ditch while the others moved to better firing positions 15 meters away. After half an hour Specialist Fourth Class William Hinote brought water to the wounded man and remained with the wounded man in the three-foot wide ditch, while both men occasionally fired at enemy positions and awaited the next assault. Suddenly while Hinotes back was turned, even after being in mild shock from a loss of blood, Seay fired another burst with his M-16. Seay had risen to a half-crouch and was firing with his left hand at some VC trying to cross the road. Hinote turned just in time to see three of the VC fall backward over the berm. No more than five seconds later he turned again and saw Seay himself fall backward, struck in the head by a snipers bullet. The man who had saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at least three times that day died instantly without making a sound.
Some of the trucks along the line had fallen into enemy hands during the battle, and enemy soldiers had rifled through them for plunder. At one point when VC were crawling all over the trucks, the truckers requested permission to call in artillery and blow the enemy troops off the road. The 25th Divisions Commander, General Williamson, denied that request.
1st Brigade learned of the ambush at approximately noon from Company C of the 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry (Mechanized), which had posted one of its platoons to protect the MSR just one kilometer south of the “Little Rubber” plantation. This under strength mechanized infantry platoon consisting of one officer and ten men along with two Armored Personnel Carriers (APC's) had sped north when it heard of the ambush. The platoon charged into the southern end of the ambush site in the plantation and was immediately engaged by an enemy force of company size deployed in length along the trench. They also began receiving fire from the enemy strong point in the farmhouse, now 200 meters to their rear. Another platoon of Company C located some five kilometers north of the ambush site, sped south and came under heavy rocket and small arms fire from the enemy strongpoint in the Buddhist temple at the northern end of the ambush. This under strength force of one officer and fifteen men in four APC's lacked sufficient combat power to overcome the force firing from covered positions in the /Buddhist temple, so they kept the enemy fixed in position by fire.
At approximately 1220 hours, the 1st Brigade Commander arrived at the ambush site in his Command and Control (C and C) Huey, “Little Bear” 120 of A. Company 25th Aviation Battalion, and went immediately to the aid of the platoon of Company C which was being surrounded by the enemy. With the additional firepower of the M-60 door guns of the C and C, and following the dropping of several cases of tear gas, which required the C and C ship to fly extremely low under the limited ceiling to be accurate and the weather that was quickly closing in the encircling enemy fell back from the two APC's of the platoon.
Lacking any immediate standby reaction forces, the 1st Brigade Commander directed his operations section at Tay Ninh TOSB to have one company of the 3rd Battalion 22nd Infantry, which was conducting a Recon By Fire (RIF) five kilometers north of FSB Buell II, brought by helicopter as quickly as possible to the northern end of the ambush site.
Ten Hueys of the 25th Divisions 116th Aviation Hornets were scrambled for an emergency Combat Assault (CA). The troops to be picked up 5 Kilometers north of FSB Buell II and inserted just north of the Buddhist temple at Ap Nhi.
The 1st Brigade commander received a radio message from the squadron commander of the 3d Squadron, 4th Armored Cavalry offering to send his Troop B to assist the brigade. The offer was gratefully accepted and Troop B was ordered to speed north along MSR 22 to reach the southern end of the ambush.
The CA is inserted north of the Buddhist temple without incident, but had to fly in at 200-300 feet elevation to be under the cloud cover.
While supervising the CA insertion Little Bear 120's crewchief was wounded in the lower leg by small arms ground fire and medi-vaced to 12th Evacuation Hospital in Cu Chi.
After delivering the wounded crewchief to the hospital and acquiring a replacement crewchief, the Company Commander of the 4th Battalion 23rd Infantry was picked up in Cu Chi and returned to the battle aboard Little Bear 120 the 1st Battalion C and C ship.
G-3 of the 25th Infantry division radioed the 1st Brigade Commander and proposed to send an infantry battalion into the ambush site and place it under Operational Control (OPCON) to the 1st Brigade if the 1st Brigade would release the ten Hueys under its control to division to assist in this airmobile reinforcement operation. The 1st Brigade Commander gladly agreed to this welcome proposal and released the ten 116th Hueys to go to Cu Chi to help lift the promised reinforcements. Unfortunately, for some unexplained reason these reinforcements from the division did not arrive, nor did the division inform the 1st Brigade that they would not to be forthcoming. Worse yet, the helicopter company was not returned to the 1st Brigade, which meant that the brigade lacked the airmobile capability to affect the outcome of the battle, or to meet any other contingency.
At 1310 Troop B of 3rd Squadron 4th Cavalry arrives on station and is immediately directed to attack from route column along the road and destroy the enemy strong point in the farmhouse located 200 meters south of the Little Rubber Plantation. Troop B charged the enemy-held farmhouse and came under heavy small arms and RPG rocket fire. After a 20-minute intense fire fight the lead platoon, led by the company commander, reached the enemy strong point, but during the assault the company commander and four of his men were killed and eleven others were wounded. Approximately fifty enemy soldiers broke and ran from their entrenched positions around the farmhouse and retreated north into the Little Rubber Plantation.
The 1st Brigade Commander directed the acting Troop B Commander to leave in place the assault platoon that had suffered these heavy casualties and to lead the rest of his troop in pursuit of the retreating enemy force. Troop B (less one platoon) set in pursuit of the enemy through the Little Rubber Plantation but after 15 minutes the enemy disappeared among the rubber trees. Consequently, the 1st Brigade Commander directed this force through the center of The Little Rubber Plantation to a position approximately 100 meters to the rear (east) of the Buddhist temple and had them prepare to assault this enemy strong point.
In the meantime, the platoon of Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry (Mechanized) (consisting of eleven men and two APC's), which had been trapped in the extreme southern end of the Little rubber Plantation, had taken advantage of Troop B's successful neutralization of the enemy strong point there to extricate themselves and join up with the assault platoon of Troop B to establish a U.S. strong point. Accordingly, the 1st Brigade Commander with his C and C ship dropped off the Company Commander of Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry (Mechanized), so he could take command of these two platoons.
While these actions were taking place, the division artillery commander had radioed the 1st Brigade Commander and offered to move a 155-mm artillery battery from Trang Bang to go Dau Ha so that this battery would be in range to lend fire support to the attack against the enemy ambush. Colonel Wolf gladly accepted the offer.
By 1430 the 155-mm battery was repositioned from Trang Bang and was firing in direct support of 1st Brigade units. With this added fire support, the tide of battle began to turn in favor of the U.S. army.
With the ceiling starting to lift marginally, the primary Light Fire Team of B. Company 25th Aviation Battalion, “Diamondheads” was scrambled from Cu Chi to assist in the fight. At 1450 the lead ship piloted by CWO Robert Spitler, “Diamondhead 10” arrived on station accompanied by his wing ship “Diamondhead 14” piloted by CWO David Stock to join in the fight. As the gunships arrived on station radio contact was made with the ground commander, “Noble Corners”. It was established that the friendlies were in a ditch west of the road. There were people unloading munitions and supplies from the south end of the convoy and hauling them into the tree line, which was established were the bad guys. CWO Spitler assured the ground commander that would be straightened out promptly. Armed with mini-guns and 14 rockets plus the machineguns of the crewchief and door gunner the gunships made repeated low-level firing passes in support of the besieged convoy, and quickly dispatched the enemy looters for the moment. The hail of enemy ground fire was extremely intense.
CWO Robert Spitler remembers the flying difficulty he had to deal with was that he couldn't climb up and roll in on a target, due to the low cloud cover. He had to fire flat, from low level at a low angle with very little forward air speed. This was not a very good fire angle, as rockets easily go over the head of the enemy or fall short. A steep dive angle from 1500' is much more accurate. Eventually, they had depleted enough fuel and ordinance that they simply hung low over the convoy and worked the treeline as they fired at point blank range. He remembers nearly hovering at some points, as he couldn't afford to lose the time it took to go out and make a full run back in again. They were everywhere. We were firing door guns, rockets and miniguns from all sides at the same time. Soon, we were out of ordinance. A second Diamondhead light fire team arrived on station to take over. It was a quick briefing from CWO Spitler and then a seamless transition as the new team moved in. He broke off and returned to CuChi to re-arm and re-fuel.
CWO David Stock “Diamondhead 20”, led the second Diamondhead Light Fire Team accompanied by his wing ship. They would remain on station in support of the convoy alternating with the Diamondhead 10 Light Fire Team until 1830 when the Diamondhead 10 ship took several hits in the blades and had to leave station and return to Cu Chi and change aircraft.
After Company C, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, had been moved by helicopter into the northern end of the ambush site to reinforce the two platoons of Company C, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry (Mechanized), the platoons of Troop B, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry advanced to a position 200 meters to the rear of the Buddhist temple. The 1st Brigade Commander (from his C and C Huey) then directed that the infantry units support, by firing against the front of the Buddhist temple as Troop B assaulted the rear. The Troop B platoons advanced in a line, firing all its weapons. When the assault reached the Buddhist temple the enemy force of over 100 Viet Cong evacuated the temple and retreated southward through the trench in the Little Rubber Plantation.
At 1530 the 1st Brigade Commander directed a “roll-up” attack operation down the axis of the enemy ambush positions in the village and the Little Rubber Plantation. Company C. 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry moved along the edge of the village, and Troop B. platoons moving just inside the Little Rubber Plantation but parallel to the trench. MSR 22 would be both the axis of advance and the boundary between the two attacking units. The Troop B CO was designated as the team leader.
The “roll-up” operation proceeded slowly and cautiously to prevent the elements of the small team from being encircled and defeated in detail. The enemy began moving southward through the trench in the Little Rubber Plantation while the enemy along the edge of the village also retreated southward through the village. After advancing approximately 800 meters, the Troop B platoons came under heavy small arms and RPG fire from approximately three hundred Viet Cong in a very large trench located 200 meters to their front. This trench, approximately ten meters wide and two meters deep, ran perpendicular from MSR 22 in an east-west direction through the center of the Little Rubber Plantation.
The 1st Brigade Commander directed the Troop B forces to assault the enemy-held trench with fire and movement. They did so, but reported back in ten minutes that enemy resistance was very strong and that the troop was unable to move forward without more infantry support.
To bolster the assault on the trench the 1st Brigade Commander directed Company C, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, to move across MSR 22 and proceed into the Little Rubber Plantation to join Troop B in an assault on the enemy-held trench. Unfortunately, Company C was almost out of ammunition it had only enough for two platoons; thus it left one platoon in the village, and joined Troop B with two platoons.
Thus, Troop B reduced to about 50 armored cavalrymen, and Company C, reduced to about forty infantrymen, with the assistance of helicopter gunships from Company B, 25th Aviation Battalion's “Diamondhead's” attempted a valiant assault against this naturally defensible position held by many times their number. After twenty minutes of intense fighting, both company commanders reported that the enemy was in great strength in the trench to their front, and in ever increasing strength on their flanks; that the enemy firepower was too strong to permit them to close with and destroy the enemy; and that both units were almost out of ammunition.
These commanders requested permission to withdraw from contact and be allowed to regroup, resupply with ammunition, and attack again. With darkness approaching and the impending monsoon rains adding to the enemy's advantages of troop strength and fire power, the 1st Brigade Commander agreed to a withdrawal from contact and directed them to disengage and fight a withdrawal action moving northward to a defensive position astride MSR 22 just north of the Little Rubber Plantation. They were to be prepared to attack again as soon as ammunition resupply was accomplished.
Back at Cu Chi, an additional light fire team from B Company 25th Aviation Battalion “Diamondheads” was scrambled to assist the withdrawal. An A. Company “Little Bear” slick was scrambled to the resupply point to get the needed munitions the Infantry units needed, and an additional “Little Bear” slick was put on 3 minute strip alert loaded with CS gas.
The Task Force skillfully effected its withdrawal just as a very heavy monsoon storm hit the area., bringing total darkness and heavy rains which forced all helicopters from the sky: this prevented the evacuation of the wounded and resupply of ammunition for several hours.
Both “Diamondhead” Light Fire Teams and the “Little Bear”, C and C, and resupply slicks returned to Cu Chi because of poor visibility and to wait out the storm. Diamondhead 174 was grounded after suffering several small arms rounds in the rotor blades and had some structural damage in the forward cabin area caused by the enemy ground fire. CWO Spitler and his crew would have to switch ships to get back into the fight.
As we awaited the storm to subside in the scramble shack, we discussed today's activities. After discussions over different parts of the battle field., it became apparent the enemy didn't want to blow the convoy or they would have already. They wanted to steal it, or at least the ammunition on it.
The drivers, some still pinned down at the north end of the convoy with little ammunition was a real concern. The large Viet Cong force in the Little Rubber Plantation was another. The main concerns then were to support the assault troops, protect the convoy from pilfering and looting, and to support the pinned down drivers. To do this successfully we needed the rain to stop and the clouds to lift some to give us room to work.
Outside it was still a torrential downpour, so I ran back to my ship and dialed up the ground frequency on the radio to see if I could catch any information on what was going on. The best I could tell was fighting was still going on, but mostly sporadic sniper fire, and the .50 Cals from the Mech APC's with their searchlights was keeping the looting of the convoy down.
The artillery unit from Trang Bang was doing a job on the Little Rubber Plantation, so the Viet Cong in the trench were at least frozen in place for the time being, and hopefully thinned out some.
At 1945 a Little Bear Flare ship was scrambled to the convoy. The Little Bear ship got on location at about 1955. The weather was still atrocious and they could not see the ground from their elevation of 2500 feet. They dropped afew flares, but it was a lesson in futility since the ceiling on the ground was too low to be effective or accurate.
Due to no visibility the Little Bear flare ship returned to the Bear Pit to wait out the storm further, as the artillery unit continued to pound the battlefield around the convoy and inside the Little Rubber Plantation.
An emergency call came at 2205 for an emergency resupply of ammunition. The ground units and drivers were in dire straights without it. Since the Little Bear resupply slick was already loaded, they voted to take a try at it. At worst they would have to return. As they approached the convoy they ducked under the cloud cover that was just afew hundred feet, the artillery unit fired some illumination rounds and somehow they found the drop zone that was illuminated by a strobe light. The conditions were much too treacherous for the gunships to work, or any other aircraft for that matter. After unloading quickly, and after some of the wounded were put on board they quickly were headed back to Cu Chi's 12th Evac hospital to deposit the wounded and then on to the sanctity of the Bear Pit and safety to wait the weather out.
At 2306, again the Little Bear flare ship was scrambled. According to the ground commander the sky was starting to clear some, and the ceiling was improving. It would prove to be a very long night for all those flight crews involved.
Jay Marion, the crewchief on the Little Bear flare ship remembers the night all to well.
We took turns "rotating on station" with the Diamondhead flare ship. While we were reloading, Diamondhead was dropping flares and visa versa. That way we could constantly have the battlefield lit up. It was one very very busy night.
We were flying with NO LIGHTS on anywhere and we didn't have monkey straps on, so one wrong step, or you get hung up on an out going flare and you went with it. It was not one of the better missions that I would want to repeat.
We were flying quite high and worked our butts off tossing out flares... hoping like you would not believe that we would NOT get hit. I still don't want to think about what it would have been like to get rounds into that pile of flares and see it catch on fire. Things would have been very nasty.
From the elevation we were at we couldn't see things very clearly, but I do know the action was quite intense down below. Tracers were going everywhere, red ones from the gunships going down, green and white ones going up, and all of them going sideways on the ground.
Within minutes of the arrival of the flare ship, the 1st Brigade C and C ship “Little Bear 120” with the 1st Brigade Commander aboard was back on station above the convoy to direct the attack and recon the battlefield. The fighting was beginning to intensify, as the VC again were beginning to assault the trucks in the convoy and the supporting drivers. Since the weather was beginning to break up, and the ceiling was lifting a call was sent for the “Diamondhead” gunships to return on station to assist in the battle.
At 2329 the phone rang in the scramble shack on the Diamondhead flight line. We were off within five minutes enroute to Ap Nhi to assist in the protection of the besieged convoy.
I remember just before we arrived on station we were monitoring the radio listening to the ground commander “Noble Corners”, situated at the south end of the convoy talking to his counter part at the north end of the convoy, “Bristol Kites”, about the developing situation. There were pockets of drivers and other convoy personnel still engaged with the VC along the roadway, and a pocket of them were still pinned down at the north end. At the south end VC had been seen unloading munitions from the trailers, but there wasn't manpower to totally stop it.
As we arrived above the convoy the weather still wasn't great, the ceiling was at about 900 feet with patchy clouds and a foggy mist hung in the air. The flare ship above was dropping flares, which cast an eerie almost surrealistic glow to the battlefield. The artillery impacting in the Rubber Plantation was creating a noticeable amount of smoke drifting back towards to the convoy. Add to this the tracers flying all over the place, green and white ones coming from the west side of the road, and red ones answering them from the east.
While our fire team leader was figuring out the logistics as to where the friendly troops were, and where the bad guys were, I noticed this little Lambretta scooter, one of those three wheeled jobs with a small cargo box on the back leave the south end of the convoy and disappear into this old barn or farmhouse. In a couple of minutes he was back and repeated the trip. I brought this to CWO David Stock my aircraft commander's attention. We decided to let him make one more trip then we would give him a wakeup call.
By now the ground commander had briefed us on the situation, and we had located the friendly troops and the bad guys, so we set up from the 900 feet ceiling and made one rocket run at the trench across from the convoy at the south end, as we started our run all hell broke loose, it was like a wall of tracers coming to greet us on the way down. I think we punched off 4 sets of the 36 rockets we had with us on that one run, and I covered with machinegun fire as we broke west away from the roadway. As we circled around, there was our little buddy and his Lambretta heading back to the little barn a couple hundred yards south of the convoy. I opened up on him with the door gun and walked the rounds into him just as he cleared the door. CWO Stock was already lined up and rolling in. He punched a set of rockets off as a barn-warming present. They went right in the door behind the Lambretta. At this point I estimate we were about 200 feet off the ground, and due to the intense ground fire we broke pretty hard and gained altitude quite quickly. I don't know how many trips that Lambretta had made into that barn, but now it was quite apparent what he had been hauling; it had been howitzer rounds. The secondary explosion that went off in that barn was totally incredible. The fireball went up into the clouds. We were back up to 900 feet and the barn parts were up there with us. We barely missed a piece of roofing tin and some other miscellaneous building materials.
My mind flashed to the morning headlines “Diamondhead 085 Shot Down By Exploding Barn”. That would make for a really shitty day.
After getting our composure back we expended the rest of our rockets and machine gun ammunition in the trench across from the drivers, and into the edge of the Rubber Plantation. This seemed to have broken the attack on the convoy for the moment, and we notified the ground commander we were expended on ammunition and would have to head back to Cu Chi to re-arm and refuel. We had been on station more than an hour.
0041 26 December
The ground commander went ahead and just released us, and if he needed us further he would call.
The Little Bear C and C ship also left station to change crews, those guys had been going since 6 A.M. yesterday morning and were exhausted.
We flew into Cu Chi's refueling point and topped off the tank with twelve-hundred pounds of JP-4 and then hovered over to the rearming point to begin the arduous task of loading up thirty-six more rockets and re-arm the mini-guns and doorguns of both our ship and our wing ship.
We had barely got started when one of the pilots overheard on the radio that our secondary team had been scrambled back to the convoy. It seems the fire was not put out yet; they were under attack by an estimated battalion size force. At least we would get a little break until the secondary team needed to re-arm and refuel.
After finishing the task at hand, and inventorying the aircraft for damage we flew back to the “Beach”, the “Diamondhead” portion of the flight line, and returned to the scramble shack to await our next mission. We had acquired a couple of holes from small arms, but they had just punctured the skin and hit nothing. A piece of duct tape would hold it for now.
We had barely got in the door when the phone rang and we were off again, back to the convoy. 174 had been shot up pretty badly for the second time in 24 hours and would havie to leave the fight.
The rest of the night was not real eventful, save ducking some ground fire.
Just Re-arm, re-fuel, and return to the convoy where we would shoot up some ammo and afew rockets when we found proper targets.
At 0630 the 1st Brigade Commander directed a “roll-up” attack operation down the axis of the enemy ambush positions in the village and the Little Rubber Plantation, a repeat of the operation the previous afternoon, while the team at the southern end of the ambush site acted as a blocking force. Company C. 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry moved along the edge of the village, and Troop B. platoons moving just inside the Little Rubber Plantation but parallel to the trench. MSR 22 would be both the axis of advance and the boundary between the two attacking units. The Troop B CO was designated as the team leader. During this sweep the gunships flew overhead incase they were needed, and as a safety precaution.
During this time frame all of the wounded had been medi-vaced to 12th Evacuation hospital in Cu Chi by either the C and C ship or 159th Medical Battalion dustoff aircraft.
By 1000 hours the entire ambush area had been swept clear and the evacuation of the disabled convoy vehicles began. The enemy had departed sometime before dawn.
Five of the prime movers caught in the ambush the day before were total losses, but all of the trailers with the artillery ammunition were in good shape and there was little loss of ammunition. The unit commanders reported an estimated one hundred four enemy killed and twice that number wounded while U.S. losses were nineteen killed and fourty-nine wounded. Seven of the dead and ten of the wounded being truckers. 25th Aviation Battalion sustained one wounded. There were also two MIA's.
After the battle Colonel Wolf stated: “This defeat of the enemy ambush was largely due to the professionalism and fighting spirit of the 1st Brigade units and their comrades-in-arms from the 3rd Squadron, 4th Armored Cavalry, the division artillery, and the aircrews of the 25th Aviation Battalion, who displayed the best traditions of the U.S. Army in coming to the aid of a friendly unit and fighting alongside it with great valor and sacrifice.”
Two slicks were dispatched to the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry for coordination of picking up the 19 KIA's. This is one of the most gruesome jobs any aviator could possibly have.
There were two Americans taken prisoner during the ambush. Specialist fourth class Bobby Louis Johnson of Detroit and Staff Sgt. Kenneth R. Gregory of Altus, Okla., both of the 62nd TC, were captured late in the fight. They were held in a VC prison camp NW of Tay Ninh City. Nine months later a 1st Cavalry Division helicopter was flying over northern Tay Ninh Province near the Cambodian border. Twelve miles northwest of Tay Ninh the crew sighted someone waving to them from a trail in the bamboo below. When the pilot descended for a closer look, he decided that the man looked like an American and brought the chopper down to pick him up. It was Seargeant Gregory.
“When they picked me up, I was actually crying,” Gregory was quoted as saying. He had escaped four days earlier and had been wandering in the jungle ever since-praying that a helicopter would fly over. Gregory was taken to the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh. Johnson remained in captivity for five years. In February 1973 he was released with most other known POW's and sent to Ft. Knox Ky.
Convoy Ambush At Ap Nhi-Stephen C. Tunnell, Vietnam Magazine
The Infantry Brigade In Combat-Duquesne Wolf
Daily Journals from 25th Aviation Battalion
After Action Reports From The National Archives
By Steve Anderson
3 Mar 89 Friday
I went in early today to do some work on the computer and catch up on some paper work.
I went to the flight line and did the second run on UH-1 287 and ran for over an hour while they did the normal adjustments. We worked on it all day and by 1700 we were finished. I hope to do the first hover Monday before lunch.
I was on the hanger floor and overheard one of the foremen say something about the aircraft, which was just starting the in-processing procedure. What caught my ear was the tail number. He said, "I am going now to check on the new aircraft 436. My aircraft in Viet Nam had the tail number 436.
I couldn't wait to see the logbooks and historical records. I opened the book and on the second page I found an entry made by yours truly on 3 Mar 1970. Can you believe it exactly 19 years to the day? It was like a reunion with an old, long lost friend. I went to the hanger and just stood there looking at her. A little older looking and a little tattered around the edges but still a good old bird. I guess I stood there a long time because Willim walked up and asked me if I was OK. I told him I was just lost in memories and that UH-1 436 was my bird in Vietnam over 19 years past. We talked about my experiences in 436 for a while and then I had to get back to work.
After everyone went home for the weekend I went out and just sat in the Crew Chief well, where I spent so many hours, remembering the good and the bad. I sometime get busy and almost forget what day of the week it is but I remember that year in Viet Nam as if it were yesterday.
When they strip the paint in the paint shop I will see if the 25th Division insignia is still on the doors and nose of 436. I hand painted the insignia and remember it is the only art type thing I ever did that looked like anything when I finished.
Talk about coincidences. Who would think that I would run across my first aircraft so many years later and with both of us so far from home. I wrote this that evening.
"HELLO AGAIN 436"
While sitting in the aircraft I wrote the following:
I entered the hanger and the smell of oil, paint, cleaning solvent and hard work greeted me like an old dear friend. The aircraft are all UH-1's lined up on each side of hangar 1 like the old guard that they are.
On the right the first bird was without a rotor head. The next one with the transmission supported by a red roll around crane. The third is intact but the windshield and the rotor systems covered in preparation for a new coat of paint. The lines go on down, each 6 deep. I am drawn to the last UH-1 on the left for this one, old, green and tired, is a very old and dear friend.
She sits by the blue hanger doors as if waiting to be called upon once more to beat the air into submission in that Pop, Pop, Pop beat that all who have ever seen the Huey fly know so well.
The hanger is silent except for an occasional Jet Airliner departing Brussels International Airport for places throughout the world. As the Jets pass the noise blocks all other sound and then the roar slowly fades and the silence returns.
I sit in the cargo area that was my home for 11 months in a far away war in a land called Viet Nam near a town called Cu Chi.
The old girl looks good after 19 years. A little worn and missing parts, kind of like me, parts have been removed for repair but I see her as I did when I was a young man of 20 years. She had a coat of gloss OD paint then and only six hours and twenty five minutes in her new dark green logbook. She was like the new car that I had never owned. Smelling and looking so new.
I remember how proud I was to be picked as her crew chief after only 30 days paying dues in the maintenance hanger. She made me special, a crew chief and she was mine to care for and protect.
Now 20 years have past and like her I am no longer so young. Most of my hair is gone and my body is rounder and my knees hurt when the weather changes but my memories of her are so strong.
As I sit here in another land so far from home it is as if she was sent once again to care for me and give a little of the comfort like the old friend she is. I sit facing the crew chief well that was once my home and she feels as if she knows me and doesn't want to be alone.
I look at the cargo deck that I know so well and think of times that then were hell. Of young broken bodies spilling their blood which ran out the doors and into the slipstream.
Of young men crying for someone to stop the pain. They yelled and yelled and yelled again.
Of the sound of gun fire near and far, of bombs & rockets crashing like falling stars.
Of good sounds too which I remember so well.
Of the wind in my face and a smooth takeoff as we go.
Of Bob & Just Plain Ted, of Butch and others whose real names I did not know but who were closer than brothers.
I think of my luck as we flew in the way of harm. Of how all seem to live protected by her charm.
I remember how the dirt and dust would be flying as we landed to keep another from dying.
Of the one who entered near dead, which had a bee sting on his tongue and an airway that was closed and would not allow the passing of the air of life.
We brought him back again with a ink pen and a knife.
The daily washings to rid her of blood & dirt and of flying all year with no one in her protection ever getting hurt.
In harms way we would fly with many of her kind. We would always stay safe in the mist of the dead and those about to die. Back we would go time after time to pick up the hurt, the dead and the dying. To haul food, water, ammo and troops we would never know. Sometimes VIP was the way to go.
She flew so smooth on early morning flights, with no hands on the controls for she would fly just right. Just forced trim to hold her straight and level as we flew. Flew once again to fight for our lives, to protect our friends.
I sit in her now some 20 years later, thinking how I loved her then and love her even more now. I will visit her often and share these thoughts of mine. Hello Again 436 dear old friend of mine.