By LtCol Mike Christy – Together We Served Dispatches
Kham Duc Special Forces Camp (A-105), was located 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.
The camp had originally been built 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 located on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by rugged, virtually uninhabited jungle. The only village in the area, located across the airstrip, was occupied by post dependents, camp followers, and merchants. The camp and airstrip were bordered by the Ngok Peng Bum ridge to the west and Ngok Pe Xar mountain, 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 friendly artillery range, 33 Marine artillerymen of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines, with two 105mm howitzers were located at the outpost.
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. It was 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, the base was pounded by mortars and direct rocket fire followed by a frontal assault. 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 gun and rocket fire. An NVA flame-thrower 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 that 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 hours, Sgt. Glenn Miller, an A-105 communications specialist, was shot through the head as he ran over to join the Marine howitzer crews.
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 CH46’s were able to land 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. Another helicopter was hit by a rocket and burst into flames, wrecking the small helipad. The remaining wounded were placed 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 was assisting to establish a defensive perimeter when the decision was made to evacuate the camp. As survivors were leaving, Perry was seen by Sgt. 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. It was believed that Perry was going to join the end of the column.
All the weapons, equipment and munitions that could not be carried were hastily piled into the command bunker and set afire. The helicopter that had been grounded by a ruptured fuel line was destroyed with a LAW. Sgt. Miller’s body was abandoned.
After survivors had gone about 1 kilometer, it was discovered that Perry was missing. Efforts were conducted 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 arms fire. Neither the men on the team nor Perry was ever found. 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. Their extraction was completed shortly before 7 pm on the evening of May 10.
In concert with the Ngok Tavak assault, the Kham Duc was blasted by a heavy mortar and recoilless rifle attack at 2:45 that same morning. Periodic mortar barrages ripped into Kham Duc throughout the rest of the day, while the Americal Division airmobiled 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 were airlifted to Da Nang, and half of the 137th CIDG Company from Camp Ha Thanh was air landed in exchange.
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 was assaulted and fell within a few minutes. Outposts 5, 1 and 3 had been 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 were seen trying to man a 106-millimeter recoilless rifle. Survivors reported that in the initial enemy fire, they were knocked off their bunker. Both men again tried to man the gun but were knocked down again 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 were unable to 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 of this position indicated that Pfc. Widdison and Spec 5 Stuller may have been killed in action. 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, who were in the third bunker, and told them that 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, was occupying a defensive position when he was severely wounded in the back by enemy mortar fire. He was declared dead by the Battalion Surgeon in the early morning hours of May 12. He was then carried to the helipad for evacuation. However, due to the situation, space was available in the helicopter for only the wounded, and Jimenez’ remains were left behind.
At noon, a massive NVA attack was launched against the main compound. The charge was stopped by planes hurling napalm, cluster bomb units, and 750-pound bombs into the final wire barriers. The decision was made by the Americal Division officers to call for immediate extraction.
The evacuation was disorderly, and at times, on the verge of complete panic. One of the first extraction helicopters to land was exploded by enemy fire, 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. Eight more aircraft were blown out of the sky.
When Pfc. Richard E. Sands, a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, was being extracted on a CH47 helicopter, it was hit by 50 caliber machine gun fire at an altitude of 1500-1600 feet shortly after takeoff.
Sands, who was sitting near the door gunner, was hit in the head by an incoming round. The helicopter made a controlled landing and caught fire. During the evacuation from the burning helicopter, four personnel and a medic checked Sands and indicated that he had been killed instantly. Because of the danger of incoming mortar rounds and the fire, personnel attempting to remove Sands from the helicopter were ordered to abandon their attempt. The remaining personnel were evacuated from the area later by another helicopter.
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 start loading civilians on board a C130, 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 fire ball about one mile from camp. All crew and passengers were believed dead, as the plane burned quickly and was destroyed except for the tail boom. No remains were recovered from the aircraft.
Capt. Orr was not positively identified by U.S. personnel as being aboard the aircraft. He was last seen near the aircraft helping the civilians to board. However, a Vietnamese stated that 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.
At the time, the order was given to escape and evade, Spec 4 Julius Long was with Coen and Simpson. All three had been wounded and were trying to make their way back to the airfield about 350 yards away. As they reached the airfield, they saw the last C130 departing. Coen, who was shot in the stomach, panicked and started running and shooting his weapon at random. Long tried to catch him, but could not, and did not see Coen again. Long then carried Sgt. Simpson to a nearby hill, where they spent the night.
During the night, the airfield was strafed and bombed by U.S. aircraft. Long was hit twice in the back by fragments, and Simpson died during the night. Long left him lying on the hill near the Cam Duc airfield and started his escape and evasion toward Chu Lai, South Vietnam. Long was captured and was released in 1973 from North Vietnam.
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 had been destroyed.
Two search and recovery operations were conducted near OP1 and OP2 and the Cam Duc airfield on July 18, 1970, and August 17, 1970. In these operations, 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, extensive search and excavation could not be completed at OP1 and OP2 because of the tactical situation.
It was assumed that all the missing at Kham Duc were killed in action until about 1983 when the father of one of the men missing discovered a Marine Corps document which indicated that four of the men had been taken, prisoner. The document listed the four by name. Until then, the families had not been advised of the possibility there were any American prisoners taken other than Julius Long. A Vietnamese rallied identified the photograph of Roy C. Williams as positively having been a POW.
Until proof is obtained 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. At the time, 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 are going to a place where heavy fighting and dying. 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.
By Michael P. Walsh
The Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial is inscribed with 58,272 names – each a story of lost opportunity and heartache; ultimate sacrifices that, with time, are known by and intimate to fewer. The New Guy is one of those small stories, perhaps now, 48 years later, important to only me – that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told.
Long Island’s morning fog was dense and chilly as I turned onto the drive at Pinelawn National Cemetery. Driving forward, I familiarized myself with the numbering of the stones. Donning my overcoat as I got out of the car, I crossed the roadway to walk another 50 feet over wet grass to The New Guy’s permanent address: plot 31313A in section “N.”
A stunted, winter-bare tree stood watch over his grave – it looked like it shaded him nicely in the summertime. The headstone, identical to the thousands surrounding it, is engraved with bits of personal information: born 12 days after I was, on July 14, 1947, he died March 7, 1968. Below those dates are chiseled the word “Vietnam;” farther down are the two letters “PH” confirming the Purple Heart was awarded posthumously. Exactly 40 years later, March 7, 2008, I was here for a long overdue visit. Although today I know his name, for most of the intervening years, I didn’t. In my recollections, he has always been, simply, “The New Guy.”
New guys were easy to spot. Naturally, there was the rookie’s nervousness, but that clean helmet cover was the giveaway. A seasoned Marine’s helmet might have a heavy rubber band encircling it, holding bug repellant and a well-used plastic spoon, but always printed on the fabric covering his steel “pot” was a message. Sometimes a clever or rude manipulation of a biblical phrase; other times, it was a less-nuanced “Screw You” challenge to the enemy. The brazen tempted fate with a crude calendar counting down their remaining days in country. Attesting to the helmet’s use as protection, basin and stool, the messages were written on camouflage covers stained by rain, soil and sweat. In 1968, those young Marines with helmet covers awaiting a personal signature were known to the rest of us as “New Guys.”
I was a Marine forward observer scout. My helmet cover sported a faded green shamrock, surrounded by the words “All Irish F.O.’s.” Early March found Louis, my radio operator, and me attached to “Alpha” Company, one of two line companies of First Battalion, Third Marines, providing security up a backwater of the Cua Viet River.
It was a reprieve to patrol from a fixed location, allowing us to fortify positions, improve makeshift hutches and learn the lay of the land before, not during, ambushes. The few incoming sniper rounds were erratic – minor nuisances that were quickly suppressed – and the weather improved daily. Most importantly, we were alive. There wasn’t much not to like.
Suddenly, on March 7, 1968, our Vietnamese-speaking S-2 scout reported enemy combatants moving through Phu Tai, a neighboring village, after nightfall. Since it was our job to keep bad actors out of the neighborhood, Alpha Co was ordered on top of Amtrak’s in the predawn dark for a rough ride, over dry rice paddies to give this little village the once over. Maybe we’d find trouble, maybe not. Personally, I was thinking not.
With the bellowing of our Amtrak’s dual turbocharged exhausts announcing our pending arrival, all North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars working the area would surely be long gone before we showed up. For all intents and purposes, it looked like it would be an early morning cakewalk. Map and compass were close, radio communications checked; I was alert, not anxious. Turned out I should have been.
In the glow of a false dawn, we were rolling-up on Phu Tai’s western edge when suddenly a rocket propelled grenade flew out of the tree line, blowing a hole in our lead Amtrak. With it came a stupefying volume of incoming automatic weapons fire. Screams of the wounded and shouts for corpsman were coming from all quarters as Louis and I leapt off our Amtrak and scrambled to a nearby trench. So much for nobody being home. Dawn had arrived at Phu Tai with a promise of some serious mayhem.
A vestige of the French and Viet Minh conflict of an earlier time, our trench was typical of those surrounding villages near the Demilitarized Zone. Just to the north of it, outside the village, was an abandoned, French-era church. It didn’t show on my map, but there it was – two-stories tall and roofless, it was one of the few solid masonry structures in those parts. My view of it was blocked by a clump of bushes rimming our trench’s back edge, directly behind where Louis and I made our stand.
Looking over the forward edge of the trench, I located where Marines were digging in. Our near-instant heavy casualties and the sustained volume of incoming fire indicated a large, entrenched force – a motivated enemy that might mount a counterattack. The simultaneous firing of several batteries was initiated to provide a protective curtain of shrapnel while we got a handle on things.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the day went badly fast. To my right, just beyond Louis, a Marine I had bummed a cigarette from a few minutes earlier was dead. To my left, in sequence, was another dead Marine, our wounded platoon commander and, scattered beyond them, a dozen, perhaps 15, Marines. Some dead, some wounded; those still capable struggled to keep our recently-issued M-16’s functioning.
During all this, I received a priority radio message advising me an NVA sniper had been spotted on the second floor of the church. The reason for the high number of casualties in my immediate area was now obvious: from his perch, the shooter could target men well below the trench’s rear lip. It was inevitable that Louis and I were going to find ourselves on that deadly score card if we didn’t put him out of business. Hoping to be quick enough to avert additional causalities, another artillery mission was worked up.
It was just then that I met The New Guy – part of a Marine company sent to reinforce our precarious position. As he dropped into the trench behind me, I turned to see by his clean helmet cover; the look on his face said that today was his introduction to the terrors of the fight. Still, he never wavered. Suppressing the fear, we all knew, he spoke the last words of his life: “What do you want me to do?” In the intervening years, neither our dire circumstances nor his response to them have been forgotten.
Quickly I pointed out the sniper’s position and explained the need to keep him down while artillery was brought on target; I don’t remember the precise number, but I can’t imagine that more than 15 words were exchanged. Turning toward the church without hesitation, he took a firing position at the base of the bushes. With my back now covered, I gave the final “fire for effect” that would eliminate that menace in the loft.
Moments later, six 105 mm artillery rounds landed in the church’s upper story, abruptly and decisively ending the shooter’s reign. Unfortunately, The New Guy missed our small victory. Seconds before his demise, the sniper fired his last round. It was on target, and it was fatal. The New Guy was dead.
Although aware that he had protected me, providing time to complete the task at hand, reflection was not an option as that March 7, 1968, engagement at Phu Tai still had plenty of promised mayhem to be played out. A brutal assault, with Marines engaging in close-quarters fighting, routed the NVA forces. Afterward, in the late afternoon’s fading light, we searched for our wounded and killed. I don’t recall there being any prisoners.
As darkness enveloped the field, “Puff,” the Gatling-armed C-130 flying transport, came on station, providing covering fire as needed and dropping huge illumination flares, lighting-up the dry rice paddy for the night’s remaining work.
With our men accounted for, the Marines withdrew from the village and linked up to form a perimeter where, from freshly dug fighting holes, weary eyes and lethal intent were focused into the evening’s menacing shadows. Inbound helicopter flights soon began landing with the necessities: munitions, food, water and, oh yes, more New Guys. Following triage protocol, our corpsmen backloaded the outgoing flights with our 94 wounded. It wasn’t until the next morning, March 8, 1968, that The New Guy and his 12 companions, each now cocooned in a body bag, were finally relieved of duty. Marines gently loaded them into Hueys for their trip back across the Cua Viet to the first stop on their rotation stateside: the morgue at Dong Ha.
Curiously, though few things have had such a profound and lasting imprint on my life, many years passed before I dared replay those long-ago violent days. When I did, prominent and persistent was the question: “Who was The New Guy?” With research, I found the answer.
Three days after the battle of Phu Tai, the Department of Defense issued its weekly count of Vietnam casualties. The following day, March 12, 1968, The New York Times published the names of those who claimed New York as home. Last on their list of 22 was a young Marine from Brooklyn: Esau Whitehead Jr.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial website describes Esau at the time of his death as a 20-year-old African-American corporal from New York City. On “The Wall,” his name is found on Panel 43E, Line 49. The record states vaguely that he died from “ground, small arms fire, Quang Tri province.” Because of the chaos of battle, it is most likely I am the only person who knows the exact details. Wanting to share those, a letter was written describing Esau’s last moments; however, when unable to locate survivors, I rewrote it as the story of ‘The New Guy,’ hoping someday it would land where it belongs. Of course, after all this time, there may be no family left or, it’s also possible that no one cares.
But I do. I care. So, Esau, I’m writing your final story, hoping it will find its way to those who remember that 20-year-old kid from Brooklyn and wonder how it was for you at the end.
Cpl. Esau Whitehead Jr., you died living up to the Marine Corps motto – Semper Fidelis – while protecting a fellow Marine you knew for less than five minutes.
Thank you again, Esau. Your family should know.
The photo is left to right: Cpl Michael Walsh, Cpl James P. “Pat” Daly and PFC Roger McLain displaying the shamrocks they added to their helmet covers in Vietnam, 1968. Lt. George Norris is to the rear and between Cpl. Walsh and Cpl. Daly. He was killed in action while serving as a Company Commander.
Reprinted with permission from the Marine Corps Association & Foundation, Leatherneck Magazine, May 2017
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an ever better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a fountain of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. He was also a masterful double agent, an inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the 1980s, when he was honored in his homeland as a national hero and revealed to have the rank of Colonel. He ranks as one of the greatest spies of the twentieth century.
As a reporter for Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine, An covered American and South Vietnamese military and diplomatic events and was one of a handful of reporters admitted to off-the-record briefings by American authorities. In appreciation for his dedicated work, Time made him a full staff correspondent, the only Vietnamese to be given that distinction by a major American news organization.
An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s café, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat” – the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’état,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in Revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.
At the same time, An was delivering a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink to North Vietnamese Politburo authorities in Hanoi, using an ingenious series of dead-letter drops. He was also using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service to write dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film disguised as egg rolls hidden inside rotting fish, his typewritten reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. In addition, every few weeks beginning in 1952, An would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy.
An’s role was so precarious that of the 45 couriers and agents responsible for getting his intelligence to the Communists, 27 of them were captured and/or killed. His writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung – An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.
Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 just north-east of Saigon in Binh Truoc in what was then French Indochina. As the firstborn son of a government surveyor establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier,An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.
At the beginning of World War II, France was swiftly conquered by Nazi Germany and the governing of France and the colonial French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government, a Puppet state of Nazi Germany. At the same time, Japanese forces invaded Vietnam. The Vichy government relinquished control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan, and by 1941, Japan extended its control over the whole of French Indochina.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned home from China and founded the Viet Minh – a communist-dominated independence movement – to fight both the Japanese occupiers and the Vichy French. Assisting him in his guerrilla warfare was his most trusted and devoted Lieutenants; General Vo Nguyen Giap, a brilliant military strategists, and Pham Van Dong.
By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
A separate design for a version of the Medal of Honor for the U.S. Air Force was created in 1956, authorized in 1960, and officially adopted on April 14, 1965. Previously, members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, U.S. Army Air Forces, and the U.S. Air Force received the Army version of the medal. The first person to receive the new U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor was Major Bernie Fisher during the Battle of A Shau Valley in March 1966. He also received a Silver Star during the same battle.
The A Shau Valley is located in Thua Thein Hue Province, 30 miles southwest of the coastal city of Hue, along the border of Laos. The valley runs north and south for twenty-five miles and is a mile-wide flat bottomland covered with tall elephant grass, flanked by two strings of densely forested mountains that vary from three to six thousand feet. Its geography and isolation made it a primary infiltration route for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) into South Vietnam for men and material brought down from the north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Located just five miles from the border with Laos was A Shau Special Forces camp with the mission of detecting and interdicting enemy forces. Defending the camp were 10 Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group and 210 South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). Out of friendly artillery range, it was supported by Air Commando units equipped with vintage A-1 Skyraiders and AC-47 Spooky gunships.
The camp consisted of some barracks buildings, a triangular fort, and an airstrip made of pierced steel planking just outside the barbed wire perimeter east of the camp. The fort had a mortar bunker at each corner. The walls consisted of steel plate and sandbags.
The camp was routinely harassed by small Vietcong (VC) formations leading up to the battle. Throughout February andMarch, 1966, platoon-sized troops from the camp were sent out to conduct reconnaissance patrols in the surrounding area. On March 5, two North Vietnamese Army (NVA) defectors turned up at the camp. Under interrogation, they indicated that four battalions of the North Vietnamese 325th Division were planning to attack the camp.
Based on that information, night patrols were dispatched to confirm the enemy positions but no sightings were made. However, Air Commandos conducting reconnaissance flights observed large build-ups of NVA troops along with anti-aircraft emplacements. As a result, airstrikes were ordered against enemy positions.
On March 7, Air Force C-123s brought in reinforcements in the form of a MIKE force, increasing the strength of the camp to 17 Green Berets and 368 South Vietnamese irregulars and Chinese Nung mercenaries.
On March 8, the camp was placed on general alert and the camp’s defenders had taken up their positions. During the night a small enemy assault was launched but thrown back.
Shortly after midnight on March 9, with the cloud ceiling at 400 feet, an Air Force AC-47D “Spooky 70” from the 4th Air Commando Squadron got through the clouds and flew up the valley at treetop level, strafing the attacking NVA formations. On the gunship’s second pass, it was hit hard by ground fire. The right engine was torn from its mounts. Seconds later, the other engine was knocked out, too. The bullet-riddled AC-47 crash-landed on a mountain slope, five miles farther up the valley. All six crewmen survived but were attacked by NVA troops. Three crewmen were killed but the other three were eventually rescued by a U.S. Air Force HH-43 helicopters.
About 2 am, March 9, a second attack began with enemy bombardment emanating from the surrounding hills. Mortars, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades pounded the camp, killing two Americans and wounding 30. The barrage set buildings and the supply dump afire and reduced defensive positions to rubble. The enemy artillery barrage stopped at dawn.
Early in the morning of March 9, two A-1Es from Pleiku were diverted from other targets and sent to the aid of the fort at A Shau. Leading the A-1E flight was Air Force Maj. Bernard F. Fisher, a 39-year-old fighter pilot from Kuna, Idaho and a devout Mormon who did not drink, smoke, or use strong language. He had been in the Air Force for 15 years.
There weren’t many jets in Vietnam in the early part of the war, so Fisher had volunteered to fly the A-1E, which was in use both by the South Vietnamese Air Force and by U.S. Air Commandos. Fisher was initially sent to Bien Hoa, where he trained South Vietnamese pilots to fly combat in the A-1E. He then transferred to the 1st Air Commando Squadron at Pleiku.
Arriving in the area of A Shau Valley, Fisher and his wingman Bruce Wallace found the mountains blanketed by clouds and began probing to find the canyon in which the camp lay.
On his third attempt, he emerged from the overcast and barely missed colliding with a helicopter that had just come from A Shau with wounded aboard. The helicopter pilot directed Fisher toward a saddle in the mountains, where he found an opening in the clouds about five miles northwest of the camp. He and Wallace went through the hole and flew down the valley at very low level. The enemy AAA was intense.
A C-130 airborne command post told Fisher to destroy the crashed AC-47 before the NVA captured the three 7.62 mm Gatling guns, which could fire 6,000 rounds per minute and which were still in working order. Fisher assigned that task to Wallace – who dropped six bombs on the wreckage and obliterated it – while Fisher went to the direct assistance of the fort.
For the next several hours, Fisher and Wallace collected arriving aircraft above the clouds and led them down into the valley. Fisher guided a CH-3C helicopter that came to evacuate the badly wounded. He also led A-1Es in a strike to break up a force that was massing to attack the fort.
Fisher went up again to bring down two Air Force C-123s. The mountains were tight on all sides, and forward visibility was less than half a mile. They began taking fire seven miles north of the camp. Fisher suppressed the ground fire as the transports air-dropped supplies for the fort from an altitude of 50 feet.
Low on fuel, Fisher went through the clouds one more time to help a forward air controller lead two B-57 bombers down the valley. In all, Fisher spent about two hours under the clouds. He made an emergency landing at Da Nang, 20 minutes away, with almost no fuel left in his tank.
Fisher was awarded the Silver Star for his role as on-scene commander and Wallace received the Distinguished Flying Cross. However, Fisher had not yet seen the last of the A Shau Valley.
In the afternoon on March 9, supplies of ammunition were flown in by C-123 and CV-2 aircraft, but the resupply drops often landed outside of the camp and could not be retrieved. At the same time, helicopters were called to evacuate the wounded. Because of bad weather, however, reinforcements from Hue and Phu Bai could not be deployed, forcing the camp’s defenders to repair as well as they could their defensive wall and dug in for the night.
Sometime between midnight and 3 AM during the night of March 10, the NVA launched yet another attack with mortar and recoilless rifle fire. Two C-123s and an AC-47 dropped flares throughout the night. Before daylight, an enemy assault team penetrated the east wall of the camp, where hand-to-hand combat took place for three hours. By 8 AM, the defenders were pushed into the camp’s north wall and the NVA dug in between the airstrip and the camp.
Throughout the day U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) aircraft strafed NVA positions around the camp, but as fighting continued the situation deteriorated with ammunition supplies running short.
About 11 AM, the defenders reported that they could hold out no more than another hour and that airdrops to resupply them with ammunition should stop since they could not retrieve the bundles.
Bernie Fisher and his wingman that day, Capt. Francisco “Paco” Vazquez, were en route to provide air support to Army forces near Kontum when they got an emergency radio call to divert to A Shau. Fisher’s call sign was “Hobo 51,” and Vazquez was “Hobo 52.”
By 11:15 AM, Hobo flight had joined numerous other aircraft that were stacked and circling at 8,000 feet and higher above the valley. They had not yet gone to the aid of the fort because of the danger of running into mountain peaks hidden by the cloud cover.
One of the other A-1 flights in the stack was led by Maj. Dafford W. “Jump” Myers from the 602nd Fighter Squadron at Qui Nhon. Myers was “Surf 41,” and his wingman, Capt. Hubert King, was “Surf 42.”
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
Non-military women also served important roles. They provided entertainment and support to the troops through the USO, the American Red Cross, and other humanitarian organizations. Women working as civilian nurses for USAID (US Agency for International Development) participated in one of the most famous humanitarian operations of the war, Operation Babylift, which brought thousands of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. for adoption. Additionally, many women reported the war for news and media agencies.
Combat nurses worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week and when a mass casualty incident occurred, like a major battle, those twelve-hour shifts could easily turn into twenty-four to thirty-six-hour shifts. Nurses also volunteered their time in the communities around them, often going to the local orphanages or hospitals to offer the civilians their medical services or to teach classes on basic hygiene, first aid or even English. Nurses also had to deal with numerous emotions: stress from a number of patients they had to serve, anger at seeing young men so horribly wounded and guilt at not being able to save all of the wounded men or make them whole again.
Despite the long hours and sometimes horrifying wounds these women had to face, many nurses found their service rewarding. They were able to serve their country and save and comfort the wounded men in their facilities. During the Vietnam War 98% of the men who were wounded and made it to the hospital survived. Nurses witnessed some truly miraculous events such as men recovering from their wounds or acts of true selflessness that are common during combat situations, and many nurses made close friends with their fellow co-workers some of whom still keep in contact into the present day.
Eight U.S. of these heroic nurses died in Vietnam; six were killed, two died of illnesses. Each dedicated themselves to taking care of the wounded and dying.
See their faces and remember their names. These are their stories.
Lieutenant Colonel Annie Ruth Graham, Chief Nurse at 91st Evacuation Hospital in Tuy Hoa. A native of Efland N.C., she suffered a stroke in August 1968 and was evacuated to Japan where she died four days later. She was a veteran of both WW II and Korea. She was 52.
First Lieutenant Sharon Anne Lane died from shrapnel wounds when the 312th Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai was hit by rockets on June 8, 1969. From Canton, OH, she was a month short of her 26th birthday. She was posthumously awarded the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm and the Bronze Star for Heroism. In 1970, the recovery room at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, where Lt. Lane had been assigned before going to Vietnam, was dedicated in her honor. She was 26 years old.
In 1973, Aultman Hospital in Canton, OH, where Lane had attended nursing school, erected a bronze statue of Lane. The names of 110 local servicemen killed in Vietnam are on the base of the statue.
View here service shadow box on TogetherWeServed: 1stLt Sharon Ann Lane
They are honored on Panel 5E, Row 46 and Panel 5E, Row 47 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
View their shadow boxes on TogetherWeServed: 2nd Lt.Carol Ann Elizabeth Drazba
2nd Lt Elizabeth Ann Jones
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