The murmur of voices and the scrape of weapons against the sides of the steel ship penetrated the damp night as the men of the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, climbed from a barracks ship, the USS Colleton, and into waiting landing craft alongside. It was 0300, 15 September 1967. Within minutes after boarding the boats, most men slept. Late the previous day they had come back from a three-day operation during which, in one sharp, daylong battle, nine of their comrades had fallen, along with sixty of the enemy. There had been time during the night to clean weapons, shower, eat a hot meal, and receive the new operations order, but not much time to sleep off the now familiar weariness that engulfed these infantrymen after days of fighting both the Viet Cong and the mud of the Mekong Delta.
Three days before Col. Bert A. David's Mobile Riverine Brigade, the 2d Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, and its Navy counterpart, Task Force 117, had set out to search for and destroy the 514th Local Force and 263d Main Force Viet Cong Battalions. When the enemy was finally found, the ensuing battle had only weakened, not destroyed, the Viet Cong battalions, which broke off the fight and slipped away.
Thus, when intelligence reports that reached the Riverine Brigade's headquarters on the afternoon of 14 September placed the Viet Cong in the Cam Son Secret Zone along the Rach Ba Rai River, Colonel David resolved to attack. (See Map 1) Quickly he pulled his units back from the field and into their bases to prepare for a jump-off the next morning. For the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, that meant a return to the USS Colleton, anchored in the wide Mekong River near the Mobile Riverine Force's base camp at Dong Tam.
Colonel David planned to trap the Viet Cong in their reported
positions along the Rach Ba Rai, a narrow river that flows from the north into the Mekong. (flap 8) About ten kilometers north of its confluence with the Mekong, the Rach Ba Rai bends sharply to the west for two kilometers, then turns abruptly east for two more before returning to a north-south direction. This bend in the river produces a salient of land that juts to the west, washed on two sides by the river. It was here that the enemy had been reported.
North of the bend, Colonel David planned to emplace the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, as a blocking force, but to get to its assigned position the battalion, in Mobile Riverine Force boats, would have to sail past the suspected enemy position. South of the bend, Colonel David planned to deploy another blocking force, the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry. This battalion, also in Riverine Force boats, was to follow the lead unit, the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry. Together the two battalions would close in on the enemy from the north and south. Once the two infantry battalions had gone ashore in specially modified landing craft known as armored troop carriers (ATC's), the Navy crews were to employ the empty boats as a blocking force. The monitors, gunboats with 20- and 40-mm. guns and 81-mm. direct fire mortars, would reinforce the troop carriers.
ARMORED TROOP CARRIER
While these forces to the north, south, and west formed an anvil, the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry, advancing overland from the east in M113 armored personnel carriers, would act as a hammer. Other forces could be airlifted into the combat area if needed. Once the enemy troops were trapped, Colonel David planned to destroy them with air strikes and the brigade's three batteries of artillery. The two infantry battalions and the mechanized battalion could then move in and finish the job. Any Viet Cong escaping across the river through the patrolling Navy forces might be intercepted by the South Vietnamese 44th Rangers, operating on an independent mission west of the river.
The commander of the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, Lt. Col. Mercer M. Doty, planned to put two of his three companies ashore at the start, Company B on Beach White One and Company A 1,000 meters to the west on Beach White Two. Both units were to land at 0800. Company C (from the 5th Battalion of the 60th Infantry, but under Doty's command) was to stay on the boats as brigade reserve. Traveling in three ATC's, each company was to be reinforced by an engineer squad, a welcome addition since all companies were understrength.
At 0415 the naval convoy transporting the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, moved out into the Mekong River preceded by two empty ATC's acting as minesweepers. A monitor gunboat led each of the
three groups of armored troop carriers. Interspersed in the column were a helicopter landing deck medical aid boat and a command and communications boat. The latter, itself a monitor lacking only the 81-mm. mortar, carried Colonel Doty's staff.
Doty himself circled overhead in his command and control helicopter. Beside him rode Capt. Wayne Jordan, an artillery liaison officer and observer. Lt. Comdr. F. E. ("Dusty") Rhodes, Jr., USN, commanded the boats. Behind the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, moved the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, in basically the same convoy formation.
As the boats churned through the swift Mekong River toward the entrance to the Rach Ba Rai, most of the riflemen in the boats slept while Navy crews manned the guns. On the battalion radio net, routine communications traffic and last-minute planning and coordination messages passed between stations. Among them was a decision to hit Beach White Two at 0730 with a 5-minute artillery preparation, followed by another five minutes' shelling of Beach White One. With only three batteries of artillery available, effective fire could not be laid on both beaches simultaneously.
At 0700 the convoy entered the Rach Ba Rai and headed north, up the narrow channel. Helmets off, flak jackets unzipped, some of the men lay on the troop compartment deck asleep; others rested against the bulkheads, smoking and talking low. On a hunch that the men should be alert, one leader in Company B woke his weapons squad just as the convoy entered the little river. Fifty feet apart, the boats proceeded in a single file, moving about eight miles an hour through the mist of the new morning. Passing a hairpin bend in the river appropriately called "Snoopy's Nose" without incident, they reached the point where the Rach Ba Rai turns west and began to pass the Red Beaches that were to be assaulted by the southern blocking force.
The first warning that something might be amiss came just before 0730. A few rounds of enemy small arms fire kicked up little geysers in the water as the leading boats were nearing the salient of land that was the objective. (Map 9)
Then, precisely at 0730, the sound of an exploding RPG2 antitank rocket split the morning calm, followed almost instantly by a second blast. Minesweeper T-91-4 reeled from the shock of both rockets exploding against its starboard bow. The radios in the boats crackled with the minesweeper's report, "We've been mined." Another boat reported recoilless rifle fire. Seconds later both banks of the thirty-meter-wide stream erupted with fire. Through the din came the unmistakable rip of the AK47 assault rifle and the staccato sound of machine guns.
Radios in the boats came alive with reports. A monitor called, "I'm hit! I hit a mine!" Then came another voice-correctly identifying the blasts-"Somebody's fired a rocket!" Recoilless rifle rounds and rockets, both the RPG2 and the newer, deadlier RPG7, slammed into minesweepers, monitors, and troop-laden ATC's. The roar of dozens of Navy machine guns joined the noise of enemy fire, and as boat after boat entered the ambush and brought more weapons into the fray, 20- and 40-mm. automatic guns and 81-mm. mortars firing point-blank added to the din. Smoke mixed with the morning mist until it became thick, like heavy fog.
Within the first minute, the other ATC that was serving as a minesweeper, T-91-1, took a hit from an RPG2. In the next seven minutes, T-91-1 took four more rockets that wounded eight of its crew. Although ordered to the rear, the boat remained in the battle.
From the Navy radios came a message from Commander Rhodes:
"Fire all weapons." Those boats that had refrained from firing their
far-ricocheting.50-caliber machine guns now brought the guns to
bear. With their peculiar measured roar, the fifties joined the battle.
As the fighting continued, automatic fire beat against the hulls, some of it coming from bunkers no more than two feet from the water line. For all the counterfire from the boats, antitank rockets and recoilless rifle rounds kept pouring from mud bunkers on either bank. The heaviest fire came from the east, from an area where intelli-
gence reports had put the Viet Cong. Firing a string of explosive 40-mm. rounds into the aperture of one bunker on the east bank, a Navy gunner blew the top off the fortification and silenced it. A1though most enemy positions were within five meters of the water and formed a killing zone 1,500 meters long, few of the Army troops saw much more of the enemy than his gun flashes.
As the line of boats moved deeper into the ambush, the intensity of the fight grew. Some boats slowed while others speeded up, but all poured fire from every operable gun. As fast as they could, the gunners fired, reloaded, and fired again.
After only a few moments of letting the Navy do the fighting, the troops joined in with M79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and M16 rifles. The men climbed, crawled, or ran to firing positions while officers saw to it that machine gunners and M79 grenadiers got the better locations.
In the first flush of the engagement, many of the Navy weapons momentarily fell silent, their crews wounded or killed. Acting sometimes under orders from company officers, but in most cases on their own, soldiers took over Navy guns so that few weapons went long unused, even though casualties constantly mounted.
Commanding the 3d Platoon of Company B, 3d Battalion, 60th Regiment, 1st Lt. Peter M. Rogers saw six of his men hit in the first few seconds. Many of the Navy crewmen on Rogers' boat also were hit and riflemen quickly took their places. When the company commander, Capt. Wilbert Davis, took hold of a Navy machine gun to fire, one of his platoon sergeants moved in to relieve him, only to take an enemy bullet in the chest. As the sergeant fell to the deck another man quickly took the gun.
Running from the main deck to the gun turret in search of a better view of the enemy positions, Capt. Gregg R. Orth, commanding Company A, took over an unmanned machine gun and opened fire. When the gun malfunctioned, he ran below decks, found a machine gunner, and sent him up to fix it. Just then he noted that the two Navy machine guns at the bow had quit firing. Surmising that they had malfunctioned, he sent two of Company A's machine gunners to remove the Navy weapons and replace them with two of the company's M60's.
Sgt. John L. White of Company B, spotting a man in a tree, turned to a nearby machine gunner shouting, "There's a sniper in the tree!" The gunner fired a long burst from his M60 and set the tree ablaze. As the two men scanned the area for another target, the blast from an exploding rocket knocked both of them down, but seconds later they were on their feet and firing.
So fast and sustained was the fire from the American weapons
that at least two M60 machine gun barrels burned out. To help the M79 gunners, other soldiers knelt by the bow, ripping open cases of ammunition. On one boat alone, three M79 gunners disposed of three cases of ammunition in twenty minutes.
With only sporadic breaks, the battle continued. Round after round struck both troop carriers and monitors. The boats veered right and left in the narrow channel, some jockeying for position, some temporarily out of control as coxswains were wounded. The blast from a rocket explosion knocked one boat commander off his feet and under a .50-caliber gun tub. Although stunned, he made it back to the wheel a minute later, but in the meantime the boat had careened dangerously.
Three minutes after the fight started a monitor, 111-2, took two RPG2 rounds, one in the cockpit that shot away the steering mechanism. The boat captain managed to beach the monitor while crewmen worked frantically to repair the damage. The job done quickly, 111-2 lunged again into midstream.
At the same time that the monitor was hit, the command and communications boat took two antitank rockets on the port 40-mm. gun mount. Although the rounds did no damage, they served to acquaint the battalion staff fully with the nature of the situation. A few minutes later, the command boat took another hit. This round knocked Commander Rhodes unconscious, but a few seconds later he was back on his feet.
To the men in the troop carriers it appeared that the Viet Cong were trying to hit the frames holding the canvas sun cover over the troop compartment and rain down fragments on the closely bunched men below. Most of the rounds that seemed to be aimed that way sailed harmlessly over the boats, for such shooting demanded the best marksmanship or incredible luck. The few rockets that struck the metal frames wounded scores of men, in one case killing one and wounding almost every other man in a platoon of Company B.
However fierce the enemy fire, both the Army and Navy radios went on operating. Amid messages asking' for the medical aid boat and questions as to whether any "friendlier" were ashore (the men were concerned lest they fire into their own troops), fragmentary reports on the battle flashed back to the command and communications boat and from there back to brigade headquarters.
Word of the ambush reached the brigade operations officer, Maj. Johnnie H. Corns, who was monitoring the progress of the convoy, about three minutes after the fight began. The first report had it that two of the boats were on fire. With the concurrence of the brigade commander, Colonel David, Major Corns directed that the
3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, be prepared to assume the mission of Colonel Doty's battalion-landing on Beach White One and Two. If that turned out to be necessary, the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, would land south of the bend, close to the beaches previously given the name of Beach Red One and Two.
Flying above the action in his helicopter, the commander of the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, Colonel Doty, also listened to the first reports of the fighting. His first reaction was a wry satisfaction that at least the enemy was where they had expected him to be. It was all the more important now, Doty believed, to proceed with the operation as planned, to run the gauntlet and get the men ashore on Beach White One and Two.
Artillery observers flying overhead in spotter aircraft called in fire on the Viet Cong positions minutes after the first enemy round crashed into the lead minesweeper. Two batteries of 105-mm. howitzers, B and C of the 3d Battalion, 34th Artillery, fired from support positions south of the battle site, while Battery A, 1st Battalion, 27th Artillery, reinforced their fires from a support base to the northeast. Although they cut down the volume of enemy fire, three batteries could not cope with all the enemy fire coming from an ambush site 1,500 meters long. The 105's could deal effectively with spider holes and other open firing positions, but a direct hit from a piece as heavy as a 155 was needed to knock out a bunker.
At 0735, Monitor 111-3 was hit by two RPG2's. The first knocked out the main gun, the 40-mm. encased in a turret, killing the Navy gunner and wounding two other seamen. The second wounded three more crewmen. Two minutes later a third antitank rocket smashed into the 81-mm. mortar pit, wounding two marines and a sailor, but the monitor stayed in the fight.
Elsewhere many of the direct hits by RPG2's did little damage. Each of the boats carrying platoons of Capt. Richard E. Botelho's Company C, for example, took at least one rocket hit, but no crewmen or soldiers were injured. Botelho was grateful for the fact that the Viet Cong were "lousy shots." Few of the thousands of enemy bullets pierced the armor of the boats. On the other hand, few of the American rounds were able to penetrate the enemy's bunkers. The Navy's 81-mm. mortar shells and 40-mm. high-explosive rounds would knock out enemy bunkers only when they passed through the firing slits. Yet however ineffective in killing the foe, each side maintained a steady fire, for one side to lessen the volume was to give the other side an opportunity to aim more precisely and bring all its weapons to bear. So close were some of the enemy's positions to the water line that some of the Navy guns were unable to depress low enough to hit them. Only when the men on the boats were
able to catch the Viet Cong popping up from their spider holes or from behind mounds of earth could they deal with them effectively.
Within five to ten minutes after the ambush was sprung, the forward motion of the convoy ceased, but individual boats darted back and forth, continually passing each other, some keeping to midstream, others making passes toward the bank before veering off, their machine guns and heavy weapons in action all the while. One boat sped past the momentarily crippled Monitor 111-3, possibly trying to protect it. Just beyond the monitor, the boat shuddered under the blows of four or five rockets, but its fire never stopped. Another monitor, temporarily out of control, brushed the east bank but moments later Swung back into midstream and into the fight.
Colonel Doty still was convinced that his troops could break through the ambush and land according to plan. He saw that the channel was filled with twisting, weaving boats, was laced with fire, and was far too narrow to pass the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, through while the fight was on. Then, as Doty watched, a single boat broke out of the killing zone and headed toward the White Beaches. Encouraged by this breakthrough, the colonel ordered his S-3, Maj. Richard H. Sharp, to "send in the troops." As Davis' boat made its dash for the beach, Colonel Doty in the helicopter above decided to make the run with him. At this point the boat took a rocket hit on the "Boston whaler" lashed to its deck. The little skiff shattered, but its outboard motor soared high in the air, and, as Doty followed its course, plummeted into the river, where it landed with a mighty splash.
By the time Major Sharp acknowledged the call and relayed the order to the lead company commander, Captain Davis could reply: "Roger, I have one element ashore now, waiting for the rest." For all the intensity of the enemy fire, Davis' boat, with Company B's command group and one platoon aboard, had broken through.
The rest of the boats, nevertheless, remained embroiled in the fight. At 0745, Monitor 111-3 took an RPG2 round on its portside that burned a hole completely through the armor and wounded one man. At about the same time, ATC 111-6 reeled under the impact of two antitank rounds but no one was hurt and the boat's fire continued unabated. A third round hit the .50-caliber mount a minute later, killing a Navy crewman and wounding five more. At this point Commander Rhodes decided that the fire was too heavy and the danger of mines-now that the minesweepers were partially disabled-was too great to justify continuing to run the gauntlet. In fact, Navy Riverine standing operating procedure required that troop carriers be preceded by minesweepers. Moreover, he urgently
needed replacement crews. At 0750, twenty minutes after the battle began, Rhodes therefore ordered all boats to turn back. They were to assemble downstream in the vicinity of the Red Beaches on the south side of the bend.
The withdrawal, under intense fire, began immediately. All the while artillery still rained on the enemy and the boats continued their fire as long as they remained in range. Four Air Force A-37's, earlier scheduled to strike the White Beaches under the original plan, roared in to put bombs and napalm on the Viet Cong positions. The enemy also continued to fire; in one case two rockets came so close to the RC-292 antennas on the command and communications boat that the rocket fins severed the lead-in wires.
One by one the boats broke out of the killing zone and headed for Beach Red Two. There the aid boat became a magnet as all boat commanders concentrated on getting help for their wounded.
Until the Navy task group commander ordered the withdrawal, Colonel Doty and his S-3 had continued to urge the remainder of Company B to pass through the ambush and join Captain Davis and his single platoon at Beach White One. At 0802, when Doty heard of the withdrawal order, he had no choice but to comply. He ordered Davis and his little band on the beach to re-embark and run the gauntlet in reverse.
Engaged by the enemy on the beach, Captain Davis and the platoon began to withdraw a few yards at a time. Putting up a heavy fire to the front, they ran in twos and threes back into ATC 111-6. When all were safely on board, Davis called the battalion- S-3 and reported laconically, "We're coming back now." Raising the ramp, the boat captain backed into the stream, brought the bow around slowly, and, gunning the engines to full speed, called out to Davis, "I'll get you through, Captain." Riding with the current, the craft began to run the gauntlet, a lone boat with about thirty men, proceeding again through the fire of the Viet Cong.
Rockets and bullets rained on the boat, but incredibly only one struck a telling blow. The craft was halfway through the ambush when a rocket hit the port .50-caliber mount. One sailor fell, killed instantly, and four of his comrades were wounded. But from that point the troop carrier made it safely back to the Red Beach assembly area.
At Red Beach Capt. James H. Bledsoe, the battalion's S-4 , who rode with the command group, was organizing resupply and medical evacuation for the wounded. An occasional sniper round whizzed through the area, though without effect, as boat after boat made its way to transfer the few dead and many wounded to the aid boat. There the battalion chaplain, Capt. James D. Johnson, and the
surgeon, Capt. Charles Hughes, ministered to the wounded. Minor fires burned on two boats, one in a box of equipment, the other in a Boston whaler. As the crews fought the fires, other boats came alongside to assist. Thanks to Bledsoe's efforts, by 0844 medical evacuation helicopters began to land on the deck of the aid boat to take the seriously wounded back to the base hospital at Dong Tam. Of the scores wounded, only twenty-four required evacuation.
Boats carrying platoons of the same company began to gather together. Platoon leaders scrambled into the company headquarters boats to brief their commanders, while the men worked to redistribute ammunition, replace damaged machine gun barrels, and radio back to the Mobile Riverine base for resupply by helicopter. Calling back to Navy headquarters, Commander Rhodes requested two minesweepers and a monitor from the force transporting the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry-now halted a few thousand meters downstream-to replace his three most badly damaged boats. Every one of his monitors and minesweepers, Rhodes reported, had been hit.
His troops out of the ambush and reorganizing smoothly, Colonel Doty directed his helicopter to a nearby fire support base to refuel. While on the ground, he conferred with Brig. Gen. William B. Fulton, one of the assistant 9th Infantry Division commanders. Getting ashore on the White Beaches, Fulton said, was the most critical element in the plan. Colonel Doty was confident that the boats with his men aboard could get past the Viet Cong and go ashore.
Returning to the air, Doty radioed the brigade commander, recommending that the battalion try again to get through. Colonel David agreed and ordered Doty to try it as soon as the Navy task group was ready.
Resupply of boats and men meanwhile proceeded swiftly. By 0900 two replacement minesweepers and a replacement monitor had arrived among the boats transporting the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry. The boats also brought replacements for many of the Navy wounded, so that the Navy crews soon were close to full strength.
For the second attempt to run the ambush and get ashore on the White Beaches, Colonel Doty directed that Captain Botelho's Company C replace Davis' Company B. which as the lead company had been hit the hardest in the first try. Company B would serve as the brigade's ready reaction force. To support the fresh effort, a light fire team of two armed Huey helicopters arrived overhead. Doty arranged for the artillery to begin firing as the task force neared the southern edge of the ambush zone and then to walk its fires up both banks of the river just ahead of the boats as the convoy sailed northward. Both soldiers and sailors were to "reconnoiter by fire"
AERIAL VIEW OF RACH BA RAI BATTLE AREA
against the banks, but because American troops were moving overland to hit the enemy from the east, the 20- and 40-mm. guns and .50-caliber machine guns were to be used only against the west bank.
While the boats were still forming for the second try, the first of sixteen air strikes ordered for the rest of the day began. Three F-4C Phantom jets-their shrill, whistling scream preceding them- came in to drop bombs and napalm on the middle of the ambush zone, a hundred meters inland from the east bank.
Just after 1000 the second attempt to run through the enemy force began. This time no element of surprise existed for either side; the issue would be settled by firepower alone. But the Americans now possessed considerably more firepower. In addition to the three batteries of artillery walking shells up the banks, the helicopter gunships and the jets would add their fire. Their combined fires were expected to keep the enemy from effectively engaging the passing boats.
The convoy entered the ambush zone with every weapon in action, aided by the helicopters and artillery. Yet again the enemy opened fire, and the fight raged all along the ambush line. If any of the Viet Cong had withdrawn it failed to show in the volume of
firepower. From the earth-covered bunkers, heavy weapons fire poured onto the boats, but they kept moving up the river. As in the earlier run, one of the two lead minesweepers was hit first: T-91-3 took two rockets, one in the coxswain's flat, one on the port .50-caliber mount. Then an ATC was hit and five of the replacement crew were wounded. Again a small boat atop the troop carrier caught fire. Although the other minesweeper was hit seven times by rockets, only three of the crew were wounded.
Rocket after rocket passed inches over the tops of the crew compartments of the ATC's, the men inside certain that the Viet Cong gunners were trying again to explode their rockets so that they would scatter deadly fragments into the troop compartments. Again, in one case, they succeeded. A rocket detonated against the starboard canopy of ATC 111-10, spewing fragments on the men below. Two Navy crewmen and eighteen soldiers were wounded. Miraculously, only one soldier died. In one blow, Company A's ad Platoon was struck down; only five men of the platoon would leave the boat to fight on the beach.
The first boats reached White Beach Two and the Navy crews were soon nosing their craft against the muddy banks. As they dropped their ramps, the men of Companies A and C dashed ashore, followed shortly by Company B as the brigade commander released the company from its role as reserve.
Hardly had the men landed and run a few feet in from the river when fire from individual Viet Cong riflemen began to fall among them, punctuated at a few points by automatic weapons fire. The troops returned the fire, relying chiefly on M79 grenade launchers with canister ammunition. As the men hugged the ground, artillery shells fell ahead of them, stopping only when three F-100's roared in to drop bombs and napalm a short distance in front. Then a second flight of two F-100's followed to drop bombs and strafe with 20-mm. guns. Once the aircraft had finished their run, the artillery quickly returned to the fight.
The three company commanders meanwhile checked by radio to determine the losses incurred in running upriver. Companies B and C had made the passage with only a few men slightly wounded. Since Company A, the hardest hit, had lost eighteen men wounded in one platoon alone, Captain Orth expressed doubt to Colonel Daly that his command could accomplish its mission. Doty replied: "You haven't got much choice; you've got to continue on." Orth answered, "We're moving out."
The biggest problem the troops on shore faced at the moment was a lack of visibility. They could see neither the enemy that occasionally
NAVY MACHINE GUNNER OF THE RIVERINE FORCE
taunted them with fire nor many of their own number, for soon after leaving the river bank they were swallowed up by dense scrub jungle. The thick foliage also prevented supporting fire from those Navy boats that had stayed behind from the mission of patrolling the river in order to aid the ground troops; gunners on the boats could not see the troops. Although the companies were within 150 meters of each other, an hour passed before all three had established physical contact. Meanwhile, the companies cleared drop zones to facilitate aerial resupply and evacuation of the wounded.
Overhead, Colonel Doty observed artillery fire, coordinated air strikes, and assisted his companies in linking up. Around noon, as the companies at last had established contact, he received a message from brigade headquarters directing a change in mission. Instead of serving as a blocking force while the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry, moved overland from the east, the 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, was to drive south while the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, after landing on the Red Beaches, pushed north. The 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry, mission to push west remained, but the battalion was to be augmented by the 2d Battalion, 60th Infantry, brought in by helicopter. Thus four battalions would press against the enemy from three sides.
About 200 meters from the river, the men at last emerged into
HELICOPTER LANDING DECK MEDICAL AID BOAT
more open terrain, Company C on the left in a field of high grass and cane and Company A on the right in a dry rice paddy. Yet leaving the jungle behind was a mixed blessing, for the enemy immediately raked the fields with small arms and automatic weapons fire. As the men hit the ground, few had any idea where the elusive enemy was hidden. Most were content to hold their fire while forward observers with the company commanders called in support. The artillery did the job. When the fire stopped the companies resumed their advance. Although some of the men in Companies A and B could see each other now, Company C was still lost from view.
Passing through a wood line that had only moments before sheltered the enemy, Company A's forward observer saw three of the Viet Cong run into a cluster of huts ("hootches," the men called them). As infantrymen fired M79's against the huts, the forward observer called in artillery.
At about the same time, Spec. 4 David H. Hershberger, a machine gunner in Company A, spotted one of the Viet Cong, brought his heavy weapon to his shoulder, and dropped the man with a short burst. When a second enemy soldier popped up from the ground and ran toward his downed partner, Hershberger shouted,
COMMAND AND COMMUNICATIONS BOAT
"There's another one," grabbed an M14 from a sniper-trained rifleman, and dropped the second man with one round at about-250 meters.
Slowly, for much of the rest of the afternoon, the southward advance continued. From time to time enemy fire increased sharply, forcing the infantry to cover, but air strikes, artillery, and the riflemen's determination to move ahead kept the advance going. As the afternoon waned, the battalion was nevertheless only about 500 meters south of Beach White Two. When at 1700 Colonel Doty reported to brigade that his units were heavily engaged, Colonel David deemed it better to risk the Viet Cong's escaping than to have the troops face the night disorganized. He instructed Colonel Doty to break contact and pull back into a night defensive position. Leaving patrols behind to cover the withdrawal, the companies pulled back to a position near Beach White Two, in the process eliminating bypassed snipers as they went.
By late afternoon the companies had linked in a semicircular night defensive position with the river and the Navy boats at their backs. Captain Davis, the senior company commander, took charge. As darkness fell, even sporadic sniper fire ceased. Through the night
the command stood at 50 percent alert, a Spooky flare and gunship overhead kept the area constantly illuminated and artillery dropped on suspected enemy locations. The enemy made no effort to penetrate the perimeter, and the next morning the reason became apparent. He was less interested in fighting than in slipping out of the closing trap.
That many of the Viet Cong succeeded in escaping became clear as patrols of converging battalions, moving against only infrequent rifle fire, established contact. The rest of the morning the men checked approximately 250 enemy bunkers, discovering 79 enemy bodies, victims of small arms fire, artillery, and air strikes. Presumably, many more of the enemy had been wounded. The American forces, all four battalions and the Navy crews, had a total of only 7 killed. But the fighting had exacted a toll of 123 wounded. Many had not required evacuation, however. Four of the enemy were detained, and one surrendered under the Chieu Hoi ("Open Arms") program, using a safe conduct pass picked up in the area.
From the first shot of the ambush, the fighting had been almost continuous, and much of the time heavy. Both sides had been hurt, the 263d Main Force Viet Cong Battalion by far the worst. Though it had left the field badly mauled, it was by no means destroyed.
The 3d Battalion, 60th Infantry, and the 263d Viet Cong Battalion would
page created 7 May 2001
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