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The Battle of Bong Trang

By Tracy Derks and James G. Holland
12/4/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

“I determined that the platoon would defend the trench,” recalled James G. Holland. “Considering the number of men we had lost assaulting the trench, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. The five men remaining to my platoon were battered, most were bloody—we simply had to hold the trench and wait for reinforcements.” As the new lieutenant for the 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry (1-2), Holland ignored the bullets zipping past his head that August 25, 1966, because he was consumed with holding his hard-won position and getting rid of the Viet Cong mortars that were making life miserable for all the men of Charlie Company. Holland’s rock in this maelstrom was his platoon sergeant, Adrian Anglim—a big staff sergeant with the nickname of “Tiny”—who had several months of Vietnam combat under his belt.

The 1st Platoon troops were involved in a road-clearing operation, designated Amarillo, which had “routine” written all over it except that the road ran near a site that their company commander, Captain William J. Mullen III, had earmarked for ambush. After a recent operation in the same area, one of Mullen’s sergeants had informed him that there were signs of enemy activity—maybe a VC resupply site—in the vicinity. Mullen had decided to set up an ambush if his unit returned to the area.

“Anglim and I concentrated our efforts on taking out the mortars that were firing to our front,” Holland continued. “These were the same mortars that had torn into us when we assaulted the trench line.”

Standing no more than 10 feet apart, the two men shot and compared azimuths to the mortar positions. Using the last working radio in the platoon, Holland then estimated the range and adjusted counter mortar fire. It worked. The incoming mortar fire slackened.

Then Holland heard the sickening twack-twack of two slugs slamming into flesh. “I turned to my right to see Anglim fall back against the earthen wall of the trench,” he said. “I moved to him to see if I could do anything. He was dead, shot twice in the head.”

Holland had no time to lament the loss of his platoon sergeant. Captain Mullen ordered Holland and his men to advance. The young lieutenant thought of the number of men killed and wounded in simply taking the trench they were in, but he kept his doubts to himself and ordered his remaining men to prepare to attack.

“The looks on their weary faces, plus what remained of my own common sense—this was perhaps the first time I had the chance for reflective thought and to not simply react since the battle had begun—told me that this attack was a no go,” Holland said. Convincing his company commander of the merits of only holding the ground already occupied required Holland to scramble back to the captain’s position, across terrain ripped by VC fire “with speed and evasiveness that would have made a jackrabbit proud.”

The 1st Platoon’s predicament in Binh Duong Province that August day was shared by all of Charlie Company. In fact, four battalions from the 1st Infantry Division had been or would be drawn into what had become a conflagration. But it was Charlie Company that triggered the battle and fought nose-to-nose with a tough Viet Cong main force battalion, and even held its ground the following day when misplaced napalm splattered the area. “It was close enough that I picked unignited napalm off the back of my neck,” Holland said.

Mullen recalled for the ambush: “We briefed Colonel Prillaman [Lt. Colonel the planning Richard L. Prillaman, commander of 1-2 Inf] and got support to the point where I was able to line up an overflight for Fortune Smith [the sergeant who was to head up the ambush].” This was simply a preplanned ambush in the event the opportunity arose.

When Mullen received his orders for Amarillo, he informed Smith that the side-operation would be “configured…as a combat patrol.” Mullen made sure that an artillery forward observer would be along to give the detachment quick access to heavy support. He also beefed up the patrol with GIs from the company’s reconnaissance squad.

The first two days of the operation passed without incident. With the company occupying positions at Artillery Base 2 near Route 1A (approximately 28 kilometers north of Di An) on the evening of August 24, Mullen ordered Sergeant Smith to move to the ambush site.

Chuck Mundahl, a Pfc bored with the monotony of the road-clearing operations, greeted news of the ambush with relief. The patrol stepped out of the night defensive perimeter at dusk. After moving several thousand meters, Sergeant Smith called a halt and established a night perimeter, though the patrol had not reached the ambush location. Smith told his men that he wanted to avoid other ambush patrols.

The next morning the patrol moved out. Mundahl, at the back of the column, recalls that they walked only a few minutes before he heard “children’s voices.” Then came the pop-pop of small-arms fire. Mundahl had yet to see the enemy, but grenades were going off, bullets were flying by, and he heard high-pitched screams. “What the hell did they do—shoot a bunch of kids?” Mundahl said to no one in particular. Then Sergeant Smith shouted, “They’re everywhere!” He meant the Viet Cong, whose voices Mundahl had mistaken for those of children. The GIs scrambled into a nearby trench.

The night before, when Smith had decided to coil-up, he had unknowingly chosen the middle of a base camp for the VC Phu Loi Battalion. The ditch was a vacant communication trench within a camp that held at least 500 VC. The patrol was surrounded.

The enemy began mortaring the Americans’ position, wounding several GIs. Smith called for countermeasures, and soon American artillery was blasting the ground around the trench. Mundahl felt as if the concussions would split his body apart. Men shouted that the fire was too close. Smith shifted the big guns.

Mundahl was searching for a target over the trench’s lip when someone yelled “Grenade!” The Pfc turned to a medic next to him and shouted, “Ours?”

The grenade exploded. “It blew me through the air,” said Mundahl. “I had burns on my shoulder and my foot was killing me.”

Mundahl called out, “Doc, am I hit?” The medic assured him that the burns and his wounds were not lethal.

With the grenades going off around the trench, Sergeant Smith passed word to the patrol to hold on: “Captain Mullen’s coming with the Cav.”

The captain quickly received permission to relieve the patrol. The company mounted up on tanks and armored cavalry assault vehicles (ACAVs) from the 2nd Platoon, Troop C, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry (1-4 Cav), while Mullen guided the rescue from a helicopter.

Company C’s 3rd Platoon under Lieutenant Ted Banta led, with Lieutenant Holland’s 1st Platoon next, 4th Platoon behind Holland’s men and finally Lieutenant David Douglass’s 2nd Platoon trailing. The combined force focused on the booming artillery bursts and the smoke rising to their front as the unit began busting through the underbrush. As the vehicles smashed forward, the captain landed and joined the column on the ACAV directly in front of Holland’s platoon.

Lieutenant Douglass, who had been in Vietnam less than three weeks and had yet to witness serious enemy fire, was pondering what his reaction might be when the shooting started. He did not have long to wonder. The column broke through the brush and entered an area where the underbrush had been cleared from beneath the trees. Specialist 4 Rich McCusker of 3rd Platoon was frantically scraping away red ants that had fallen on him from a branch, when Sergeant Robert L. “Snuffy” Smith announced his desire to “kick some ass today.” Just as McCusker started to respond, a red fountain spurted from Smith’s forehead. “Somehow [Smith] went off the back of the tank and the one behind him ran right over him,” McCusker said. “He was killed immediately.”

Lieutenant Douglass explained years later: “The column stopped and we offloaded. I was on the last APC [armored personnel carrier]. At that point I saw a VC in a trench not more than 10 feet in front of me. He popped up. I shot at him.” Douglass stopped firing when he saw a GI lying between him and the guerrilla. “It dawned on me that I just shot the guy in front of me [the GI] in the head.” Luckily for the trooper, Douglass had a tendency to shoot high.

Farther up the halted column, as the firing intensified, Mullen and Holland realized they had cut across the top of an enemy trench complex, within the VC base camp.

The company deployed off the vehicles and opened up on the Viet Cong. The combined fire from infantry small arms along with the Cav’s large-caliber weapons allowed the Americans to establish fire superiority in short order. Holland described the situation: “After 10 minutes of return fire, the VCs’ heads were down and our heads were up.” Incoming fire was reduced, but several GIs had been wounded in this initial engagement.

Holland, newer to Vietnam than even Lieutenant Douglass, was satisfied that the action had been in accordance with standing operating procedures—which now demanded that Holland regain control of his platoon. His radio telephone operator, Spc. 4 Roger L. Temples, had been wounded in the fray; his right ear lobe had been separated from his head. The wound was gushing blood, but it was not life-threatening. Holland decided to keep Temples with him because he knew all the call signs and frequencies.

Mullen ordered Holland to load his men up on a tank and an ACAV and continue toward the trapped squad. The captain, following with the 3rd Platoon, knew he could not leave the enemy positions unengaged, so he left the 2nd and 4th platoons to secure the rear. By that time it was after 0900 hours, and Charlie Company had moved only slightly more than four kilometers from Artillery Base 2. The 1st Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. William DePuy, had decided to commit more troops to the fight by this time, ordering in the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry (1-16), the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry (2-28) and the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry (1-26). Still, it was Mullen’s C Company that was at the heart of the battle.

“I don’t know how far we had gone toward the patrol,” Mullen related, “when [simultaneously] a tank and an APC got stuck, and David [Douglass] called and said he was taking heavy casualties.”

The captain then ordered Holland to swing around and go back to the base camp. While turning, the tank threw a tread. The commander of the tank, Sergeant Walter W. Shipley Jr., and Holland estimated that it would take more than an hour to repair. The company did not have that much time, and he could not leave a detachment behind to guard the tank. “I ordered the breach block and radios pulled and the engine and guns destroyed.”

Second Platoon’s Lieutenant Douglass was unaware that the company had moved on toward the trapped patrol. As he hugged the ground, his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Israel B. Tames, appeared next to him with grim news: Ronald “Little Man” O’Rourke was the platoon’s first fatality.

Tames then informed Douglass that the platoon needed to “get across into that trench where the bad guys are.” Tames bolted forward but Douglass heard him call out, “I’m hit!” Tames managed to return to the officer’s position and continued to fight despite his wounds, but he was always the bearer of bad news: an ever-increasing tally of the platoon’s dead and wounded. Douglass was soon wounded by grenade fragments himself.

It was Tames who assessed the worsening situation and informed Douglass, “We need to get out!” Douglass called Captain Mullen, who pulled his forward elements back to assist the stricken platoon.

While the company was regrouping around 2nd and 4th platoons’ remnants, the patrol that had initiated the contact sank into an ever more desperate situation. Already surrounded in a trench, Sergeant Smith and others decided their only chance was to make a break toward the company position. Nine GIs, including Pfc Mundahl, were in no shape to join the escape attempt. They squeezed a little tighter together as three GIs left the trench. Only one of the three survived. In the trench, Dennis Peterson was the only unwounded patrol member.

At Mullen’s position, Lieutenant Holland was ordered to attack to establish a perimeter. The 1st Platoon assaulted northward. “We moved forward on line,” Holland recalled. “The terrain was clear, gently inclined to our front.” The VC began lobbing mortar rounds on the platoon while cutting through them with small-arms fire. “We would get up and assault until we heard the VC mortars cough. Knowing we had a few seconds, we would seek cover.”

After evading a mortar volley, Holland felt the sting and burn of a fragment in his left calf. A GI near Holland was shredded by more than 20 fragments, while Holland’s radio operator, whose ear was already partially shot off, was hit several more times. “We moved again,” Holland said. “The mortars coughed again, this time I took cover in a handy hole which turned out to be a sump, it reeked but I stayed. The next rush took us to the VC trench, which we held for the rest of the fight.”

Holland decided it was a good spot to consolidate what remained of his platoon. Sergeant Anglim was there but was soon dead. With Anglim gone, Holland counted six men. Sergeant Mansfield M. Tugood Jr., who had been shot through the foot, would stay. Temple, the wounded radio operator, had to be evacuated. Pfc Kurt Riemenschneider, with wounds to his hands from having two machine guns shot out from under him, would stay and fight. Sergeant Kenneth Kerl, on the left flank, and Pfc Rudolph M. Blaize, on the right, were also ready to fight. Here the 1st Platoon would make its stand.

It was shortly after Anglim had been killed that Holland dashed back to Captain Mullen to inform him that the 1st Platoon could advance no farther. Mullen’s position was precarious in every direction: “I lost my command group early—it may have been a mortar or an M-79—but it knocked them all down,” he said. The 2nd Platoon was scattered. The 4th Platoon was down to one soldier. The 3rd Platoon was in the best shape, but it was heavily engaged.

For several hours, Charlie Company held the smoking ground alone. Some of the men defiantly fought on as tears streamed down their faces. Johnny Johnson of the 3rd Platoon was sure he was going to be killed, but intended to extract a price from the enemy first. Nearby, Rich McCusker was hugging the ground when shrapnel slammed into his back. The pain was agonizing, but only when Johnson sprang toward him, brandishing his bayonet, did McCusker think he would die: The wounded man thought his friend had been driven mad by the intense fire and was about to murder him.

“What are you doing?” shouted McCusker as Johnson cut away his shirt.

“I’m trying to see the wounds,” responded Johnson, who had risked his own life to go to his friend’s aid.

An Air Force HH-43B Huskie was sent to evacuate the wounded from the small clearing at the battle site. It took fire and crash-landed near Mullen’s position, and the helicopter crew spent a nasty day huddling close to Company C.

The situation began to break in Charlie Company’s favor at about 1300 hours, when B Company joined the fight. The 1-26 had been committed and was approaching from the west, and the 1-16 was also heading toward the battle. The VC Phu Loi Battalion, meanwhile, was anxiously trying to disengage and withdraw.

Captain Nils Johannesen, the B Company commander, made radio contact with Mullen and assured the hard-pressed captain that things would be OK. A short time later Johannesen was wounded and evacuated, but B Company continued to advance.

At about this time Major Richard D. Clark, the acting commander of 1-2, was given operational control of the battlefield by Colonel Sidney B. Berry, the 1st Brigade commander. Berry, Clark and Mullen met in the small clearing—which was under enemy fire—to assess the situation. When a well-aimed shot struck Clark in the head, Berry decided that the situation was critical and stayed on the battlefield to bring it under control.

In Holland’s area, along Charlie Company’s precarious northern perimeter, contact had been established with Company A, 1-16 at about 1600 hours. As Company A began to move north past his location, Holland stopped the company commander, Captain Peter Knight, and informed him that there were enemy positions directly to his front. Immediately thereafter, Company A walked into a buzz saw of 57mm recoilless rifle and .51-caliber machine gun fire. Captain Knight was killed, and the unit was driven back after sustaining heavy casualties.

An ACAV made a run parallel to Holland’s front and was stopped in its tracks by a 57mm recoilless rifle. Soon afterward, the track commander wandered into 1st Platoon’s line. Holland recalled: “He looked like we all looked that day; dirty, sweaty, hollow-eyed and dazed. The cord to his headset dangled, disconnected, to about his waist. He asked me if we had seen any of his men. I told him we had not. He turned and said that he had to go back to find them.”

Late in the afternoon, the VC pulled back from the base camp. The companies maneuvering into the area were forcing the pull-out. Most of the fighting was now being done by the companies of the 1-26 and the 1-16. With the afternoon waning, C Company consolidated its position. A bloody Sergeant Tames stumbled up to an equally exhausted Lieutenant Douglass and told him that his wounds were forcing him from the field. “I did all I could,” he said. “I tried.”

The 1st Platoon picked up some men from the 1-16 who augmented the position. The remaining troops of C Company settled into their night positions, yet Holland’s men heard Vietnamese voices to the front of their line. The 1st Platoon braced for a counterattack and remained alert throughout the night. Pfc Rudolph Blaize was most disturbed by the knowledge that around him in the utter darkness were the dead bodies of his friends and enemies. Thankfully, no attack came.

At first light, Pfc Riemenschneider asked if he could go to a tank forward of the platoon’s position to scavenge water and rations. Holland said OK. Shortly, Riemenschneider returned and told Holland that a hand was sticking out of the ground and waving. It was a macabre sight on the early morning battlefield. Holland ordered the tank to hook up a tow line to some vegetation near the hand and pull it up. Enough ground was jerked up along with the bushes that a trench was exposed. There were four VC in it, three alive and one dead. The day before, as Charlie Company and the 2nd Platoon, Troop C, 1-4 Cav had advanced, the armored vehicles had crushed the openings of a covered trench and sealed its occupants inside. The voices from the night—which had convinced Holland’s men that an attack was imminent—had been the VC crying out from the caved-in trench.

For the men of Fortune Smith’s ambush patrol, the night of August 25 had been a nightmare. Though the remainder of C Company had actually ended up close to the stranded men of the patrol, the action had been too hot for Mundahl or the others to risk exposing themselves. In an effort to police up any remaining VC—most had disappeared in the night—Colonel Berry called in a napalm strike. One pilot dropped his canisters, only to have one scrape a tall tree, which burst open the napalm and spread it along the line. Two GIs were killed. Fortunately for Holland the napalm that landed on the back of his neck was unignited.

Now the real clean-up began, with bodies and discarded equipment to recover. Permeating the area were the sweet cloying smell of death and the smell of smoke rising from burning vehicles. Holland marveled that anyone could have survived the devastation. His vision was drawn to a shock of red hair on the head of a dead GI. The face was that of a boy, not a soldier. Yet his expression—one of serenity—puzzled Holland: “Where did that peaceful look come from? This dead boy was coming out of hell.”

 

Regular contributor Tracy Derks teaches history at Montgomery College, Conroe, Texas. James G. Holland retired from the United States Army in 1988 as a lieutenant colonel. For additional reading see: Bong Trang: 25 August 1966, by Thomas P. Galvin; and Stemming the Tide, by John M. Carland.

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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