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Big Catch in the Fishhook

By Swanson Hudson
7/25/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

A secret foray into Cambodia produced the intelligence that undercut a major Communist attack in the summer of 1969.

According to the newspaper accounts, on August 9, 1969, about 50 B-52 bombers raided a North Vietnamese troop concentration 65 to 75 miles north of Saigon “along the Cambodian border.” After being forced from cover, the North Vietnamese, numbering about 100 men, came under ground attack by U.S. infantry. Sixty-four of the enemy were killed and six were captured.

To most Americans reading their morning newspaper at the breakfast table, this was just another story about a long and tiresome war in a faraway land. But this highly coordinated strike, which actually reached inside Cambodian territory, saw a volunteer eight-man aero rifle platoon team execute an extraordinary mission that would yield critical intelligence on an impending massive enemy offensive. In what one general described as “probably the most gallant action” of the war, the mission was also credited with saving hundreds of American lives and contributing to the ultimate defeat of the offensive.

One of the most dangerous places in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War was an area in eastern Cambodia’s Kampong Cham Province, called the Fishhook. About 11 miles due west of Quan Loi and landing zone (LZ) Andy, it got its name from the peculiar shape the border formed if traced on the map. By 1967, the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), the headquarters for all Communist operations in the South, had built elaborate base camps and supply depots in the Fishhook to support the Viet Cong and NVA war effort. The 1968 Tet Offensive had been coordinated out of this area of Cambodia. In 1969, there were anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 enemy troops defending these base camps and making hit-and-run raids across the border.

In 1969 I served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s (ACR) Air Cavalry Troop, “Blackhorse,” as a squad leader in the Aero-Rifle Platoon (ARP). This reconnaissance unit was responsible for most of the 11th ACR’s ambushes, raids, aircraft recovery and special security missions. During 1969 we were mostly committed in an offensive role as a light infantry strike force. We typically got up early, went to the flight line with our weapons, ammo and water, and went hunting. Many of the missions we conducted were in Cambodia—“across the fence,” as we called it at the time.

On August 9, 1969, I went on one of my first missions into Cambodia, a bomb damage assessment patrol into the Fishhook. As historian John Plaster has written, “These forays across the border into neutral countries bordering Vietnam were technically a violation of international laws and America’s professed rules of engagement.” But to the men of the Blackhorse Air Cavalry Troop, all that was just politics. Being good cavalrymen, we fought the enemy wherever we found him.

The events leading to this mission started on July 29 with the seemingly unimportant surrender of a VC soldier named Nguyen Can An. He decided that he wanted out of the war, and he “Chieu Hoied” (rallied) to a South Vietnamese government Regional Forces unit in the village of Binh Minh, which was about 3 kilometers west of An Loc.

On July 31, a military intelligence team from the 11th ACR’s 541st Military Intelligence Detachment interviewed the VC defector and got a cock-and-bull  story. He told the Americans that he had been forced into the VC 9th Division as a laborer. Most of the information he gave to the intelligence team was old news. But he also told them that the VC 9th Division was still operating west of An Loc in the vicinity of the Fishhook. The Division had operated there earlier, but now was thought to be farther south in the “Angel’s Wing” sector of the Cambodian border, about 85 kilometers southwest of An Loc.

Since the intelligence analysts did not believe the VC defector’s story, Lieutenant Thomas R. Kelley from the intelligence detachment convinced Blackhorse commander Colonel James Leach and his regimental intelligence officer, Major Robert D. Foley, to question him further. A few days later, Nguyen Can An told them the truth: he was a platoon leader in the H-21 Sapper Reconnaissance Company of the 272nd Regiment, which was part of the VC 9th Division. (Although nominally a VC division, the 9th by that point in the war probably was 90 percent NVA soldiers.)

An told the Americans that there was going to be a major offensive and the main effort was to take place in Binh Long Province. He said the 9th Division had brought in the 271st and 272nd regiments to help the VC local force D- 368 Battalion take the ARVN and American bases in the An Loc area. To make matters worse, he also said the NVA 7th Division was sending its 209th Regiment against Quan Loi, the headquarters of the 11th ACR and the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade. They also were to take Bo Duc district headquarters northeast of An Loc, in Phuoc Long province. The NVA 1st Division was to interdict Highway 13 in the vicinity of Chanh Thanh south of Quan Loi. An said that his platoon was almost through with its reconnaissance of the attack positions for the 272nd Regiment, and that the coordinated offensive was to take place in early August.

Armed with this information, the 11th ACR immediately set out to collect and develop more intelligence. Additional evidence came from a battle south of An Loc when enemy bodies turned out to be from the 271st Regiment. On August 1, an NVA soldier captured east of Loc Ninh told interrogators that the NVA 7th Division was going to attack Quan Loi soon. The next day, August 2, another VC defector reported that two companies of the 9th VC Division were reconnoitering the area west of An Loc. He also said that 40 troops from the D-368 Battalion had been in the area west of An Loc on July 31.

With all this information, Colonel Leach had enough intelligence to back up his conclusion that the area was in for a major attack. He immediately sent his intelligence people to the Phuoc Vinh headquarters of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), to which the 11th ACR was operationally attached. The 11th ACR team briefed intelligence personnel and Brig. Gen. George Casey, the acting commander.

On August 7, commander General Creighton Abrams visited the 1st Air Cav’s headquarters and was briefed on the situation by the division’s intelligence and operations officers. Based on the evidence they presented, General Abrams told the 1st Cavalry Division to get “serious about the threat.” He promised more troops and told them he would increase the B-52 Arc Light strikes against the likely avenues of approach to the bases in Binh Long Province. He also ratcheted up the secret B-52 bombing missions in the Fishhook west of Quan Loi. What the allied side needed now was more precise intelligence information on the plans, strength and intentions of the attacking enemy forces.

Shortly after 9 A.M. on Saturday, August 9, the 1st Cavalry Division’s B Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry (1-9th Cav) and Air Cavalry Troop, 11th  ACR, were flown some 15 miles west of Quan Loi into the Fishhook. Bravo Troop 1-9 Cav found the enemy near the Fishhook and killed 24 NVA troops who were still stunned from the air strikes and were literally wandering around in an open field. The surviving NVA soldiers escaped and no unit identification was determined. The contact occurred around 10 a.m.

At about the same time Bravo 1-9 was engaging its targets, we were overflying an area known as Base Area 352, in the southernmost point of the Fishhook. This area had been the target of some 50 B-52 sorties the night before. One of our helicopter pilots spotted a lone NVA wandering through the bombed-out base camp area, and one of our accompanying gunships took him out. More enemy troops were spotted while the gunships made their firing runs. It was obvious to the pilots that the NVA troops were still dazed from the bombing and it was decided to insert the ARP to capture some of them alive. Lacking adequate landing zones for Hueys, the decision was made to insert eight troopers using OH-6A light observation helicopters (LOH). First Lieutenant Douglas P. Rich, the ARP platoon leader, asked for volunteers, and immediately the entire 18- man platoon volunteered to go with him. He selected the first seven.

AG-1 Cobra gunships provided cover as the two tiny LOH helicopters flew Lieutenant Rich and his seven troopers into the NVA base camp area. As they were heading for the objective, one of the LOHs made a hard landing right into the bunkers. “I was trying to land short, but I lost power and had to dodge a tree,” said 1st Lt. George H. Adams. “Then I found myself in the middle of the bunkers.”

The eight ARP troopers on the ground stealthily moved into the big base camp and spotted a large group of NVA soldiers who seemed to be still dazed and confused from the earlier B-52 strikes. Lieutenant Rich later noted, “We would have been in a bad situation if they had known what was going on.”

Moving farther into the base camp, the ARP troopers captured three NVA soldiers who indicated where more of their comrades were hiding. “We looked into a bamboo thicket and found their company commander and one other guy playing dead,” said Spc. 4 John B. Montgomery, an ARP fire team leader. Searching the nearby bunkers yielded another NVA soldier, a cache of more than four tons of rice and a small amount of ammunition. While at the cache site, the ARP troopers killed two more NVA. Taking cover a short distance away, the Americans vectored in the Cobra gunships on the cache site and then destroyed it.

The fireworks spooked another large group of NVA from cover and at least 34 of them were mowed down by Cobra gunship rockets and 7.62mm minigun fire as they tried to escape. U.S. Air Force jets were on station, and American airstrikes cost the NVA two more men. By this time the unit identification was certain. The dead NVA soldiers were from the VC 9th Division’s 271st Regiment and the 101-D Regiment of the NVA 1st Division. One of the NVA prisoners, Van Ngiah, said that he was a member of the 1st Battalion, 101-D Regiment and that his battalion base area had been hit by a B-52 strike the night before. He had stayed in his bunker all night and when he came out in the morning he found only five men from his unit alive. Under the cover of our LOHs and gunships, the platoon evaded large groups of NVA and withdrew with the prisoners. As we loaded two of the captives into my chopper, I looked into their young eyes and could see that they were glad to be out of all that hell.

Once we landed back at Quan Loi, the POWs were whisked away to be interrogated as lives were on the line. Later in the day our pilots spotted more enemy  troops moving in another base camp 15 miles northwest of An Loc. Our Cobra gun ships rolled in hot on the enemy, killing 25 more.

Blackhorse ARP troopers who took part in the action were met at Quan Loi by General Casey, who praised them for the mission. He later described the action as “prob – ably the most gallant action that I have heard of during the entire war.”

The 11th ACR regimental commander, Colonel Leach, also praised the men of Air Cavalry Troop, saying, “This was one of the bravest acts performed in the history of the Vietnam War. The information gathered from this contact could change the outcome of the coming offensive.”

The intelligence extracted from the six POWs saved American lives. On August 11, U.S. military officials in Saigon disclosed that intelligence reports based on captured enemy documents and interrogation of POWs indicated that the enemy was preparing for a late summer campaign. All the military base camps in Binh Long province went on nightly 100 percent alert. But the area initially remained mostly quiet except for a premature contact at the 1st Cavalry Division’s fire support base at LZ Becky. Night after night, thousands of GIs strained to see through the dark and fog, as the battles of Binh Long Province were about to begin.

The intelligence the POWs gave us proved correct when, at about 1:20 a.m. on August 12, COSVN sent two or possibly three divisions against the allies in Binh Long Province. In some of the most intense fighting we had seen in months, they attacked at least 150 cities, towns and bases. Even with the information from the six POWs, casualties were high. In the first 24 hours, the Americans lost 90 men killed and about 500 wounded. ARVN casualties were 170 men killed and 371 wounded.

Between August 12 and August 19, nearly 4,000 enemy troops were killed—1,450 during the first 24 hours of the offensive—and 251 were captured.  By the third week of August, the enemy had been defeated and pushed back across the border into Cambodia. The NVA would never be able to conduct another offensive of this magnitude while American troops were in Vietnam in strength.

This hard-won allied victory resulted from good intelligence and unit preparations, but the most important contribution to victory came from the eight daring ARP troopers who snatched the six NVA from the Fishhook.

 

Swanson “Jerry” Hudson served a total of 32 months in Vietnam in cavalry and infantry units. He later worked for the state of North Carolina as a prison corrections officer. For additional reading, see: Winged Sabers: The Air Cavalry in Vietnam 1967–1973, by Lawrence H. Johnson III; and Low Level Hell, by Hugh Mills.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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