At 0345 hours on May 23, 1967, an explosion near the platoon command post ripped through the night and brought 21-year-old 1st Lieutenant James L. Williams to his feet. Thinking someone had mistakenly detonated a Claymore mine, he yelled for a cease-fire–then quickly changed his mind when a burst of automatic-weapons fire stitched the ground next to him. Williams yelled, ‘Take cover!’ and leaped for the PRC-25 radio as flashes pierced the blackness in front of bunker 3. Van Tuong 1–one of five hamlets composing the village of Van Tuong–was under attack.
Lieutenant Williams and the 2nd Platoon, Company C, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry (4-31), 196th Light Infantry Brigade (196th LIB), had come to Van Tuong 1 six days earlier to defend the hamlet and install a village chief who was loyal to the South Vietnamese government. It was a big job. Van Tuong 1 was some 16 kilometers south of Chu Lai in Quang Ngai province, an area with a long history of Communist activity.
The Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP) concept of placing 15 Marines and a platoon of Popular Force (PF) soldiers in a VC-controlled hamlet to wrest power from the Communists had enjoyed considerable success around Chu Lai. When the 196th LIB replaced the 7th Marines, who were deploying north, the Marine-style CAP teams were left in place and put under the operational control of the brigade. Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Smith, who commanded the 4-31 in May 1967, later wrote: ‘I thought it [CAP philosophy] quite effective as the posts were constantly attacked by the VC who did not like losing people and villages to government control.’
Captain Mike Ruane, the commander of Company C, had come up with the idea of restoring the village chief in Van Tuong 1 a short time after the 196th LIB arrived there. Ruane later recalled that the plan to secure the hamlet was not part of a formal pacification program, but rather an effort to gain control of the area of operations (AO) from the VC. He presented the concept to Colonel Smith, who later described Van Tuong 1 as ‘a VC hotbed.’ It had been the scene of bloody fighting between the VC 1st Regiment and the U.S. Marines during Operation Starlite two years earlier. The VC 1st had left, but the well-armed VC 48th Local Forces (LF) Battalion was in the area in May 1967. Smith probably had the 48th in mind when he approved the plan and directed Ruane to commit a rifle platoon for the mission.
Ruane selected his 2nd Platoon and planned for its support in detail. He later said: ‘To relieve the platoon, if it were attacked, there was normally a Bushmaster [ambush] platoon operating within a l,500-meter radius of the 2nd Platoon.’ Fire support would come from Battery C, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Artillery (3-82), located at the base camp north of Van Tuong, and from the company’s organic 81mm mortar platoon. Gunships from the 71st Combat Aviation Company (‘Firebirds’) based in Chu Lai were only minutes away. Unforeseen problems with the artillery, however, would later surface at a critical moment. Colonel Smith approved the plan. On May 17, Williams’ 2nd Platoon and a three-man 60mm mortar squad, about 26 men in total, clanked out of the base camp aboard armored personnel carriers (APCs) of Troop G, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. The new village chief and a South Vietnamese national policeman would meet the platoon at Van Tuong 1.
Lieutenant Williams’ first order of business upon reaching the hamlet was to select and prepare a defensive position before dark. Much of the terrain around Van Tuong 1 was flat and overspread with rice paddies and bamboo hedges. A knoll west of the hamlet offered the most attractive defensive site. The 2nd Platoon, however, had come to protect the population, not to defend a hill. Williams therefore picked a 50-by-75-meter rectangular clearing in the northeastern section of the hamlet girdled by hedgerows and a ditch. Near its center was a thick-walled pagoda and schoolhouse, which Williams designated for his command post. He planned to use an open field to the west of the perimeter as an LZ.
Captain Ruane and the S-3 (battalion operations officer) agreed with Williams’ choice of locations. Ruane said later, ‘The big point was to show the villagers that we were there to stay, that the U.S. Army would protect them from the VC.’ Setting up a perimeter defense is a straightforward infantry mission that the 2nd Platoon had performed many times. Lieutenant Williams established the perimeter along the trace of the ditch, designated squad sectors of fire and covered two avenues of approach into the platoon’s sector with machine guns. The 60mm mortar section, under Sergeant Richard Wezalis, dug in near the pagoda. Also present were Private Frederick A. Baker and Spc. 4 Arthur Lloyd Jr., the 2nd Squad leader.
While Williams’ men prepared fighting positions, he spotted artillery and mortar concentrations around the perimeter and reported them to the company, where they were placed on a fire-support plan and given numerical designations for rapid reference. When the village chief saw where the platoon had formed its defense, he sent villagers to clear fields of fire. The chief, a veteran of the First Indochina War, later told Williams that he was also going to build a fence around the position. The chief’s initiative immediately boosted Williams’ confidence in him.
The first night in the hamlet passed quietly. The next day the platoon built bunkers and patrolled the area. There was no contact with the enemy. The village chief began work on the promised perimeter fence on May 19 and had it completed within two days. Sergeant Wezalis said later: ‘It was built so you could see through it, and the sharp sticks were at angles to one another, making it difficult to get through.’ As an added measure of security, the platoon strung concertina wire between the fighting positions and the bamboo fence.
On the morning of May 21, Williams received word through a PF soldier that the VC planned an attack on the platoon. Later that day a patrol picked up three male VC suspects. Under questioning by the village chief, the three let slip that a VC company was within 800 meters of the hamlet, and claimed that a second enemy company was 1,500 meters to the south. Lieutenant Williams dispatched patrols to check the areas.
Although they found nothing, Williams had the platoon set out extra trip flares and place cans filled with dirt, sandbags and gasoline around the perimeter to mark its boundaries at night for supporting gunships in case needed. Ammunition for the 60mm mortar was increased. Each rifleman was issued four hand grenades and 400 rounds of M-16 ammunition. The two machine guns had 1,600 rounds each. After sunset, the troops set out Claymore mines and waited for an attack. Nothing happened.
The next day, May 22, a local woman told Williams that 200 VC had been in the village during the night. The woman said that she earnestly believed they would attack the platoon shortly.
Williams passed the woman’s remark on to Ruane, who later recalled that there had been several such reports of pending VC attacks within the company’s AO. One of the enemy’s purported objectives was the 105mm howitzers positioned in the company base camp. The other enemy objective was the 2nd Platoon at Van Tuong 1. Ruane, however, had no solid intelligence. A 24-hour truce was declared on May 22, in observation of Buddha’s birthday. Captain Ruane and 1st Lt. Jack Gominial, the company’s forward observer (FO), had planned to spend that night with the 2nd Platoon, but a late afternoon meeting at battalion caused them to miss the platoon’s last resupply helicopter. Ruane radioed Williams that he and the FO would join him the next day and remain overnight.
That afternoon the 3rd Platoon, led by a Staff Sgt. Daetweiler, joined Williams in the hamlet and prepared for a night ambush east of Van Tuong 1. Williams’ 1st Squad would establish an ambush site to secure the platoon flank west of the hamlet. The departure of the 1st Squad would leave only 23 men to defend the perimeter. Williams left bunker 2 empty and shifted Pfc Douglas ‘Bingo’ Chapman to join Pfc Robert D. Click and Pfc James T. Haskell in bunker 3.
The 1st Squad departed sometime after sundown. En route to the ambush site, the patrol twice exchanged fire with VC. In response, Williams swung the squad to a new position south of the hamlet, where it spent the rest of the night without incident.
Other enemy sightings came at about 2000 hours, when Pfc Frank A. Jones–in bunker 5 along with ammo-bearer Spc. 4 Fred Greer–used his Starlight scope and spotted three VC on the hill west of the perimeter. Williams directed Pfc David Bowman to fire on them with an M-79 grenade launcher, then sent Spc. 4 Ronald Homicz and three men from the 3rd Squad to check the area. They found nothing. When Homicz and his group returned, the 3rd Platoon departed for its ambush site.
At least two companies of the VC 48th LF Battalion–about 180 men–meanwhile began to take up positions around the 2nd Platoon’s perimeter. At about midnight the men manning the bunkers heard dogs barking and birds calling. An hour later, Pfc Tommy Smith, a machine-gunner in bunker 4, reported two VC near the perimeter’s south gate. Williams joined him and checked the area through a Starlight scope–but too late, as the VC had faded into the darkness.
Thirty minutes later, Smith reported chopping sounds beyond the banana trees and hooches south of his position. Then at about 0230 he heard cattle bel-lowing and pigs squealing. ‘When I heard all of this,’ he recalled later, ‘I got wide awake and watched.’
That was about the time that Spc. 4 Gilbert Rivera in bunker 9 heard a cracking noise that sounded as if someone was tearing down the fence. Later, around 0300, Williams heard a woman scream from somewhere out in the hamlet.
Private Click stood his watch outside bunker 3, because the bunker’s narrow apertures limited his field of vision. Chapman and Haskell slept. As Click listened to owllike noises coming out of the darkness, he recalled that a PF had once told him the VC hooted like owls. An incoming grenade that exploded 20 meters to his front gave the tale credence.
Click rolled into the ditch and took up a firing position as three shadowy figures hastened across his front. He pointed his M-16 at their midsections and fired two bursts. Click recounted later: ‘I saw the three go down….As soon as the grenade went off, Bingo and Haskell joined me in the ditch. Bingo came up like a snake.’ It was Click’s first firefight. Minutes later, a satchel charge ripped a gaping hole in the bamboo fence, and more VC charged out of the blackness, amid a barrage of hand grenades. Haskell, who had ducked into the bunker, looked out and saw three VC standing near it. He fired a burst at the one to his front, then turned his rifle on the others. A grenade, luckily a dud, bounced to a halt a few feet from him. He clambered from the bunker, thinking, ‘They want this position pretty bad.’ When he rejoined his friends in the ditch, Haskell heard someone he thought was a VC leader screaming and haranguing his men. He said to Click, ‘God, don’t let them listen to him.’
When the attack started, Williams radioed Lieutenant James A. Smith, the company executive officer, and told him: ‘We are being hit extremely hard. Mortar rounds are landing all over the place.’
Smith replied, ‘OK, buddy, help is on the way,’ then ran to wake Ruane.
Captain Ruane first thought the attack on the 2nd Platoon was a diversion, but quickly changed his mind. He informed the 4-31 battalion tactical operations center (BTOC), and the BTOC radioed an immediate request to brigade for gunships and flareships. Ten minutes later, a team of Firebird gunships was headed south toward the flare-lit sky above Van Tuong 1. Because of the truce, Lieutenant Gominial’s request for artillery was at first denied pending the approval of Brig. Gen. Frank Linnel, who had assumed command of the brigade just three days before. Captain Ruane was livid. ‘To hell with the truce,’ he said, and began firing his 81mm mortars to support the platoon. It became dangerous when the command net became cluttered with chatter, so he ceased firing high explosive and switched to illumination. Clearance to fire artillery did not come until 30 minutes after the attack started, well past the point of effectiveness.
The 3rd Platoon was clearing its ambush site when Ruane formed the reaction force. He placed Lieutenant Smith with the lead squad and directed the leader of the 1st Platoon to go through the hedgerows and stay off the trails. In the event of an ambush he was to leave the point element and keep moving. Just after 0400, a Sergeant Iafrate led them out of the base camp. In Van Tuong 1, the 2nd Platoon was learning that a battle in the dark is a rude, confusing affair, marked by rapidly unfolding events and frequent human error. After Williams had reported the attack, he decided to move up on line. He picked up his rifle but could not find his steel helmet or bandolier of ammunition. He grabbed the PRC-25, but it got tangled in rubble. Knowing that the platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class William Jackson, had the platoon’s other set, Williams dropped the radio and dashed off to cover a blind spot between bunkers 3 and 4. As he neared the position, he saw a VC standing on an anthill to the right front of bunker 3 and fired a burst at him on the run. Just before diving into the trench,Williams saw the VC topple backward.
Shortly afterward, Williams heard the platoon medic yell his name from the CP and saw him hit the ground to avoid an incoming grenade. The medic was near the radio, and Williams yelled for him to call in mortar concentration ‘214.’ The man complied, then dropped the handset and raced to him. The medic was a conscientious objector and carried no weapon or ammunition.
Williams heard his name called again but did not answer for fear of a VC grenade. His silence caused someone to holler, ‘The lieutenant has been hit.’ Williams yelled, ‘I’m OK,’ and as he had predicted, a VC grenade landed 10 feet away. Just then, Spc. 4 Richard A. Green, the platoon radio operator, hollered that gunships were on the way. Green had sought cover in Smith’s bunker when the CP had come under fire, but when he saw no one next to the PRC-25, he sprinted back to the CP, untangled the radio and hustled back to Smith’s bunker. Williams began crawling toward Green to direct the gunships.
The 2nd Platoon needed support. The enemy attack had struck hard, the men on the north end bearing the brunt. Private First Class Carl R. Stovall and Pfc Donald A. Skinner in bunker 8, as well as Pfc John T. Trivette and Pfc Charles Gilmer in bunker 1, were dead. The VC had set up a .30-caliber machine gun and an M-79 in bunker 1. Williams was halfway to Green’s position when the VC machine gun chattered to life. He turned and saw 30 to 40 VC silhouetted in the glow of burning huts and trip flares around the three bunkers north of the position. He saw a VC fire into Trivette and Gilmer’s bunker and then wave his arms and scream, apparently trying to get his men to continue the attack. Williams emptied his rifle at the VC, but doubted that he hit any of them.
The three bunkers on the north side were in VC hands, but two of the Americans there had survived the attack. In bunker 9, Pfc Donald Beck had relieved Rivera and was standing watch in the dark shadow of a tree when a grenade landed three feet to his front. More grenades followed.
Rivera, who was asleep in the ditch, woke when the attack started but was knocked unconscious by a grenade minutes later. As Beck headed for the bunker, he saw Rivera lying still and thought he was dead. There was no time to check. Bursting trip flares revealed a swarm of grenade-throwing VC. A passel of women and children was right behind them. Beck emptied two M-16 magazines at the VC and saw five or more of them go down. He had expended a third magazine when a grenade soared through an opening and knocked him out as he tried to scramble outside.
When he came to, the VC were across the trench and a gang of children was around him, rifling the bunker. Beck said later: ‘I could feel their bare feet step all over me. I thought one was going to mash my nose clean in. He was standing on my face….I knew if I [squirmed] I was a dead man.’
He felt someone rip his watch off before he blacked out again. Williams, concerned about the weaponless medic, returned to the ditch. As he arrived, an incoming ‘C ration’ grenade bounced off his back. The blast wounded him in the arm. The platoon medic, who had remained in the ditch, yelled that he, too, had been hit. While attemping to calm the man, Williams asked Click if he could spare some ammunition. Click grinned at his platoon leader, threw him a magazine, and said, ‘We sure are kicking some ass, aren’t we.’
That was not completely true, but the 2nd Platoon had certainly held out against a superior force. Smith had spread fire across his front by rapidly switching his machine gun between the bunker’s three apertures. Automatic weapons are prime targets; before long an incoming M-79 round filled the air with fragments and wounded him. It was the first of three wounds Smith would suffer that night.
Conditions around the pagoda also were dire. The national policeman guarded two male and two female VC who had been captured earlier in the day and were confined within the building to await evacuation. When a rocket-propelled grenade struck the pagoda, the policeman decided to seek cover in the trench. He was mortally wounded by a grenade as he jumped from a window.
Around 0420, a man from the west side of the perimeter came screaming into Click’s position: ‘I’m out of ammo. They’re going to overrun us. They are going to get us all.’ Click gave the man ammunition, told him to snap out of it and shoved him between himself and Chapman. When that did not calm him, Click backhanded him across the mouth, and told him to get back to his position. The man then left the ditch to get more ammunition from his gear.
Williams was also empty, so Click tossed the lieutenant four magazines and started back for the ditch. The man who had panicked was returning to his bunker when the VC machine gun opened fire. Click felt a sting in his right thigh and his leg went numb. The other man was hit in both legs. Click dragged him back to the ditch and fashioned a tourniquet with web gear.
That was about the time Spc. 4 Green yelled that the gunships had arrived. Green later recalled: ‘When the first chopper got there, the lieutenant called out to throw flares. Smith threw a flare and it caught a hooch on fire. I asked the chopper pilot if he could see the hooch on fire, and he said yes. I explained where we were at.’
Shortly afterward, Williams reached Green and took over the radio. One of the gunships fired on Captain Ruane’s column when it was about 500 to 600 meters north of Van Tuong. No one was wounded, but the incident infuriated Ruane.
Williams, meanwhile, had redirected the gunships to make a south-to-north pass. Specialist 4 Greg Kitchen, Captain Ruane’s radio operator, cut in when he heard Williams’ instructions, ‘Negative, we are to the north, come east to west.’ Staff Sergeant Daetweiler radioed, ‘Negative, we are coming in from the east.’
Williams said later, ‘So we all compromised and they [the gunships] came in with their runs southwest to northeast.’ The VC began to withdraw soon afterward.
Captain Ruane described his first look at Van Tuong 1 as surreal: ‘The smoke from burning hooches was hanging around four to five feet from the ground, the villagers were screaming and crying; some tracer was going by–mostly red, some green.’ As they reached the perimeter boundary, Sergeant Iafrate tripped a flare, and Ruane and his men hit the ground. Kitchen yelled, ‘The 2nd knows we’re coming, don’t they?’
Ruane yelled, ‘Let’s go!’ and they raced the final distance into the perimeter. The 3rd Platoon arrived a few minutes later. Colonel Smith flew into the position just minutes after daylight. The brigade and division commanders arrived shortly afterward.
The 1st and 3rd platoons fanned out and set about treating the wounded, retrieving the dead and picking up scattered gear. Shortly after 0500, Captain Ruane reported the area secure and requested three medical evacuation helicopters.
Five men from the 2nd Platoon had been killed and 15 others wounded. In bunker 7, Pfc Joseph D. King was KIA and Pfc David Bowman was wounded. Private First Class Terry L. Strouth in bunker 4 and Private Baker, who had been in the CP, were also wounded. The village chief and one PF were killed during the fighting. Two more PFs and the national policeman died in the hospital.
The VC 48th Battalion also suffered during the attack. Fifteen of its dead lay around the perimeter. The four VC suspects had also died. Later, the Marine Combined Action Company reported that 40 to 50 VC had been carried away and buried, and 50 to 75 more had been wounded. Company B air assaulted west of the hamlet of An Cuong 1 to block the 48th LF Battalion’s withdrawal. It was a fruitless exercise: The 48th had gone to ground.
For most men the aftermath of battle is as traumatic as its beginning. Lieutenant Williams explored the perimeter. ‘I wasn’t looking for anything,’ he said later. ‘I just wanted to see how many of my people were alive.’
One of the men from another platoon showed him an expended 57mm recoilless rifle round that he had found outside the fence in front of bunker 6, which was occupied by machine-gunner Pfc Merle Southland and assistant gunner Pfc Ronald Bergeson. Another six rounds were found to the right front of bunker 1, Trivette and Gilmer’s position and the site of a second 57mm recoilless rifle. Two dud U.S. M-26 hand grenades lay near the shell casings. Williams figured that Trivette or Gilmer had thrown them. Dud hand grenades–some American, but mostly Chicom or homemade devices–littered the ground around the positions. An explosive ordnance disposal team flew in to assist.
Captain Ruane thought it was important to remain in Van Tuong 1 and requested permission from Colonel Smith to continue the mission. Colonel Smith agreed with Ruane, ‘as any other course of action would show the people and the VC that we were defeated or chicken,’ he wrote later.
General Linnel, however, thought the idea was too risky and overruled Smith. He later apologized to him for ‘chickening out.’
The brigade commander’s decision totally frustrated Ruane and his men, who believed that they had paid in blood for the right to stay in Van Tuong 1. ‘We had told the villagers that we were coming to stay and then we were pulled out after one attack,’ Captain Ruane commented. ‘We completely lost the advantage we were trying to obtain. We didn’t get [the trust of those people] back while I was in country.’
Colonel Smith summed up the situation: ‘The main lesson…is that the U.S. Army failed to take the hamlets, villages and people from the VC. These were the source of recruits, money, food and intelligence. The Army [also] failed to recognize the soldiers of the USMC CAP posts.’
Early in the afternoon on May 23, Company C walked out of the hamlet and returned to its firebase. The 2nd Platoon’s battle for Van Tuong 1 was over.
Colonel James F. Humphries, a retired Special Forces officer, researched this article through original documents and correspondence with some of the participants. For additional reading, see Philip B. Davis’ Vietnam at War and Douglas Pike’s Viet Cong.
This article was originally published in the December 2003 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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