"Let me know what you need…watch your fire discipline…you don’t want to run out of ammo," said Custer, a master at coordinating air and artillery
The 1970 battle in the Renegade Woods, like most fierce fights in the Vietnam War, came up with the suddenness of a violent tropical storm. The densely wooded area in Tay Ninh Province nestled under a broad curve in the Vam Co Dong River was covered by thick, double-canopy jungle heavily undergrown with vines. Open areas were few within the Renegades, and they were thatched with elephant grass and bordered by hedgerows. Close to the Cambodian border, this area that had long harbored bandits and outlaws served as ideal staging areas for North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units that crossed the border. This was Indian Country for sure, where only the technological superiority and mobility of combined forces could overcome the advantages of the NVA/Viet Cong (VC) forces, which could typically evade and escape to Cambodian sanctuaries before suffering too much damage.
At 7 a.m., April 2, 1970, a helicopter light scout team from the 25th Aviation Battalion flew a visual reconnaissance of the area. While the intended landing zone showed no sign of enemy activity, two other potential LZs nearby bore unmistakable signs, including footprints. Ranger teams 38 and 39, Company F, 75th Infantry, were put on the ground to investigate, and within minutes a light machine gun opened up on them at short range, destroying 1st Lt. Philip Norton’s radio and wounding Sergeant Fred Stuckey. Stuckey and Spc. 4 Donald Purdy managed to kill the machine gun crew with hand grenades, but from all directions the Rangers began taking fire, including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Obviously they were facing a much larger enemy force than they could handle, so Lieutenant Norton ordered them to move where the team could be extracted or reinforced by air.
Using fire and maneuver, the two elements of the Ranger team moved toward the location Norton designated. Norton’s element reached the site, finding momentary security in a bomb crater, but the second element, under the assistant team leader, Sgt. 1st Class Alvin Floyd, did not. Floyd and Sergeant Michael Thomas were killed by small-arms and RPG fire, while Spc. 4 Donald Tinney fell wounded in the open. Norton was able to drag Tinney to the relative safety of the crater.
As the chaos on the ground unfolded, Warrant Officer James Tonelli brought his UH-1 into a low-level approach under heavy fire, dropping down 15 feet from the crater. After the Rangers raced to the chopper and piled in, Tonelli managed to get the overloaded helicopter airborne in spite of taking multiple hits from ground fire, even as 1st Lt. David Parsons in an OV-10 Bronco fired his miniguns in strafing passes following the extraction. While 11 Rangers had been rescued, two dead men were left in the clearing.
I was the operations officer of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry, the Wolfhounds, and at 0900 we were ordered into the fray. Two of the 2nd Battalion’s companies were already operating in the area. The night before, Company C had served as a blocking force for an Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) unit engaged with the enemy four kilometers southwest of the Renegade Woods, and Company B had conducted ambush patrols nine kilometers south. Now Company C, under Captain Jerry D. Bateman, and Company B, commanded by Captain Charles Criswell, hastily moved to helicopter pickup points.
Company C was first to get into the fight, but with only three helicopters available, it was 1100 hours before it was on the ground and moving toward the NVA/VC force. By 1140 all the platoons were exchanging fire with the enemy.
I listened to the radio transmissions between the battalion commander and the company commander from the battalion tactical operations center at Fire Support Base (FSB) Jackson, which was built to block a major infiltration route known as the An Ninh Corridor. The route made use of canals and swampy lowlands on the Vam Co Dong River to the east, known by its shape on the map as the Angel’s Wing. Things were already beginning to go wrong. Two of the platoons had been advancing to contact in parallel columns, with the 1st Platoon under 1st Lt. Ronnie Clark, followed by the 3rd Platoon, led by 2nd Lt. Ronald Kolb. The 2nd Platoon, commanded by 2nd Lt. Monte Hack, moved parallel on the right flank of the other two platoons, separated from them by a dense hedgerow. Immediately after becoming engaged, the lead platoon was pinned down by a machine gun firing from its right front.
The point man was wounded, followed by Lieutenant Clark, who was shot in the stomach by a burst of enemy fire. As the 1st Platoon returned fire, Kolb tried to maneuver his 3rd Platoon around to the right, but his point man was killed almost immediately. Kolb pulled his men back and maneuvered them to come up on the left side of 1st Platoon, but he was killed in a burst of fire from an unseen enemy. First Platoon’s Staff Sgt. Melvyn Hamana Kalili was then killed as he moved forward in an attempt to assist the wounded point man. As the leaders fell, the platoons went to ground and the attack stalled. As his junior leaders were falling one by one, Captain Bateman, the slight but scrappy Company C commander, tried to keep his faltering unit in the fight, but moving from platoon to platoon, he became a choice target. When he was wounded by rifle fire, Company C was out of action, except for 2nd Platoon.
Second Platoon had been spared the withering fire to which the other two platoons had been subjected, but after moving rapidly in the intense heat and humidity of the jungle on the other side of the hedgerow, platoon leader Lieutenant Hack and others were becoming heat casualties. Talking with Hack on the radio, I could tell his judgment was impaired. Second Platoon went to ground, and Company C was no longer a fighting force.
As I listened to the desperate situation unfold, I hurriedly cleaned my CAR-15, checked my loaded magazines and readied my web gear for an extended stay in the field. My battalion commander, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer III, the grandnephew of Yellow Hair himself, was rushing back to the battalion in a command and control (C&C) helicopter to pick me up. Custer was a mercurial leader. “Bald, blocky and bad-mouthed” was how another battalion commander in the brigade described him, referring to his combativeness in discussing tactical matters with superiors and subordinates alike. During one heated discussion Custer had with another battalion commander, I had to personally intervene. Certain that Custer was about to swing at the other lieutenant colonel, I had grabbed a handful of the back of his fatigue jacket. He turned instantly, smiled broadly at me and stalked out of the room.
I’d been under Custer’s command for about three months and had seen how his fearless nature and curiosity kept him just a step away from disaster most of the time. Tough, but also kindhearted, he never passed up an opportunity to perform humanitarian acts. He once ordered his pilot to land his unarmed observation helicopter in a village of questionable loyalty to take a sick child and its mother to a hospital.
“Colonel, you have got to stop doing this stuff,” I told him afterward. “You’re going to get yourself—and the pilot—killed in one of these insecure villages.” He smiled contritely, then turned on me: “You can’t talk to me like that,” he said, still smiling. “I am your commander.”
As we flew from FSB Jackson toward the Renegade Woods fight, Custer calmly impressed on me the need to take charge of the situation on the ground. “You won’t have a lot of time to get things under control before dark,” said Custer. “There is no way of knowing what kind of shape Charlie Company is in until you get there. You’ve got the ball. Let me know what you need, and I will make sure you get it. Watch your fire discipline. You don’t want to run out of ammunition.” We had agreed that it would simplify command problems if I went in with a single radio on the battalion command net, allowing me to move around on the battlefield without additional radio antennas to draw fire. I would request artillery and air support from him, and he would handle it from the C&C helicopter.
Covered by 118th Helicopter Company gunships, seven UH-1 slicks carrying 1st Platoon of Company B, two squads of 2nd Platoon and Criswell’s command group landed at 1423 at an LZ tucked inside a horseshoe curve of the Vam Co Dong River on the Renegade Woods’ northern edge. Our C&C Huey flared and landed behind the last slick. Custer shook my hand and I jumped out with my radio operator, Spc. 4 Danny Klossner.
Fortunately, the LZ was cold. I had a hurried conference with Criswell, who had been in the field for several days. I told him we had to get control of the situation on the ground quickly, without waiting for the rest of his company. I had no idea how much time or combat power it would take to clean out the enemy, but we had to be ready; our slender force and whatever remained of Company C had to organize for defense before dark.
We weren’t worried about support. Custer, a master at coordinating air and artillery, had practically unlimited artillery on call and an incredible amount of air support on station, since it was a quiet day for action elsewhere in the division. With Custer in the helicopter above, we knew we would make the most of it.
I had to do two more things before we went into action: Give Custer my plan for movement to make contact with the enemy, and issue an order for smoke to mark our movement through the jungle. My greatest concern as we moved under the canopy was being hit by our own air and artillery support. But, in the helicopter above, Custer was already orchestrating this with artillery liaison officer Captain C. Merton Agena, and within seconds after the smoke had drifted up through the canopy, artillery rounds were slamming into known enemy positions ahead of us.
Radio reports from the mostly leaderless Company C hunkered down in the jungle indicated our artillery was hitting enemy positions, and that enemy fire had fallen off, except from one spot on their right front. I ordered Company C to stay in place and keep up its fire on the enemy until the men of Company B passed through their position. The volume of small-arms fire from their direction was not encouraging. It seemed to be largely enemy fire, and the few tracers we observed were green.
At 1445, the leading element of 1st Platoon, Company B, started to receive small-arms and light machine gun fire, but it was light and ragged, so I ordered an immediate assault. Criswell brought his short-handed 2nd Platoon up on line with the full-strength 1st Platoon and started the assault. Increased enemy fire slowed the lead platoon, and the attack was halted briefly to prevent the lagging platoon from firing into it. At this point, a small group of enemy soldiers emerged from a hedgerow, either bent on escape or making an attempt at a flanking attack. First Platoon shot down two, and a gunship killed two others as they changed direction and tried to run away. One man from 1st Platoon was wounded in the brief encounter.
By this time, 2nd Platoon was able to resume the assault. While the enemy was no longer defending positions in an organized way, snipers were left on stay-behind missions or were unable to withdraw with their unit. They killed 2nd Lt. Orville Kitchen, the artillery forward observer with Company B, and Spc. 4 John Lyons, a radiotelephone operator. We were directing artillery and airstrikes on the positions, which quickly became untenable for the NVA. Except for the sniper activity, by about 1500, all reports indicated that the enemy had withdrawn from contact, abandoning prepared positions and slipping away in characteristic fashion to safer spots. At this point, Criswell turned his attention to the bypassed hot spot, where the body of the dead point man still lay. Sergeant Stephen Adams, a 1st Platoon squad leader, and Spc. 4 Richard Nast, a medic, volunteered to retrieve the soldier’s body, but the effort was abandoned when the light machine gun opened up again. Specialist 4 Orlando Noriega, a 1st Platoon machine gunner, took the gun under fire and silenced it.
By 1800, light under the gloomy canopy was beginning to fail, and I knew it was time to begin moving into a night defensive position (NDP). Throughout the fighting that afternoon, Custer had kept me abreast of plans to seal off the enemy force within the Renegade Woods, where it could be surrounded and destroyed. Our forces would be enlarged the next day by the addition of two mechanized infantry companies from 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, the “Triple Deuce.” As the day ended, enemy contacts dwindled to an occasional sniper round. I knew there was plenty of fighting yet to be done, but it would have to wait until tomorrow since our ammunition was running low and there was much to do in the last hours of daylight.
The location of the NDP was ideal: It was near the LZ, in the crook formed by the river and supported by artillery fire from Fire Support Bases Hull and Hampton. At 1820, 1st Sgt. Domingo Rodriguez-Colon arrived at the LZ with the remainder of Company B, a full platoon and the missing squad from the short-handed 2nd Platoon. He was ordered to begin organizing the NDP, clearing fields of fire as necessary. Twenty minutes later, I ordered Company B to break contact and withdraw to the NDP. The first order of business was to round up and reorganize Company C. Criswell soon had his company at full field strength, except for the day’s casualties. First Lieutenant Cyril Weisner, executive officer of Company C, then arrived with 1st Sgt. Gengoro Higa to take command of his company, which had lost all of its officers to death or wounds during the day’s fighting. The company still lacked enough leaders to be fully effective, but I decided that trying to introduce replacement officers in the middle of a battle could result in confusion and hesitancy.
The final airstrike of the day was put in by OV-10 Bronco pilot Captain John MacLeod. When the fighters drew ground fire, he rolled in and blasted the sources of the fire with his own rockets and machine guns. The enemy fire ceased.
After I had issued orders to complete our night defenses, I caught up on events in several radio conversations with Colonel Custer. I already knew that we would begin operations in the morning with significant reinforcements. Company A of our battalion had been airlifted to some 1,000 meters south of us, where it was preparing an NDP. Two mechanized infantry companies from 2-22 Infantry would come under our operational control on the following day. Together, the five companies of this task force were to seal off the Renegade Woods and destroy the enemy.
The night was interrupted only by the mutter of distant artillery and a dazzling electric show put on by an Air Force AC-119, which rained a stream of fire on a nearby enemy position.
I had a fitful sleep because of pain from RPG fragments in my left arm. Klossner, my radio man, sustained cracked ribs in the same blast. I forced him to get on a dustoff to Cu Chi.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were up against two battalions of the 271st Regiment, 9th VC/NVA Division, and they had been badly bloodied by the number and variety of air and artillery resources expended on the first day. A battle, like a poker game, attracts many players when it is the only one in town, and the absence of other significant action in the division area at the time attracted bombs and artillery shells on a lavish scale. This produced casualties far beyond what the Communists would have suffered had they had more time to disengage and flee to their Cambodian sanctuaries, as was their usual habit.
Colonel Custer had some of the same propensity for taking risks as his namesake, but his luck and timing were better. All that I learned of his activities during the day’s fighting, except for his calm orders and questions on the radio, was drawn from the sometimes laconic, and sometimes excited comments of the pilots who observed him in the air. Yellow Hair rode again. What he did for his men on the ground was to put the lethality of air power where we needed it, when we needed it. He let us fight the battle on the ground. No combat infantryman can ask for more.
April 3 began with a reconnaissance of the first day’s fighting ground. It included recovering the two Rangers and the three Wolfhounds whose bodies had remained on the battlefield overnight, since retrieving them in failing light in the presence of enemy snipers would have been just too much of a risk.
My thin command group, including a grinning but hurting Danny Klossner, who had hopped on a resupply bird from Cu Chi to rejoin us, moved out between Criswell’s Company B and the battered Company C, led by its lone officer, Lieutenant Weisner. We moved west to link up with Company A and the mechanized Company B, 2-22 Infantry, advancing from the south.
One more recovery task remained. The day before, one of two UH-1C gunships from the 118th Helicopter Company had been shot down by ground fire. The pilot was able to make a forced landing in a clearing about 800 meters west of the battle’s initial contact site. The crew was rescued by their squadron companions in the other gunship. The rocket pod on one side of the aircraft was on fire and “cooked off” after the crew left, but the rest of the weapons and ordnance on it were intact. When our two Wolfhound companies reached the downed aircraft, we removed the weaponry so it could be lifted out by a CH-54.
As the morning wore on, aviation contacts with the enemy occurred more frequently, but infantry contacts fell off. At 0745, a light scout team assigned to Delta Troop, 3-4 Cavalry, received ineffective fire from three enemy soldiers; the scouts returned fire, killing all three. Similar firefights continued all day, but the enemy presence had clearly been reduced to those who were trying to escape. For the next two days, the remnants of enemy forces were destroyed through good use of the speed of the mechanized units in hammer-and-anvil movements.
On April 5, Company A of 2-27 Infantry was ordered to a 24-hour maintenance “stand down” at Cu Chi while the two mechanized infantry companies and the two rifle companies continued their clearing missions, closely supported by the available air support. There was no longer a need for centralized control on the ground and it was time for me to go back to the battalion.
The final score card of the action in the Renegade Woods is a gruesome reminder of the cost of war. A total of 101 enemy bodies were counted on the battlefield. There was one enemy prisoner of war, and two who switched sides in the conflict. Our own casualties were 12 killed, including one who later died of wounds received in the battle. Eight of them were Wolfhounds from our battalion, two were Rangers from Company F of the 75th Infantry, and one was the artillery forward observer from Battery B, 2-77 Artillery, in the field with Company B, 2-27 Infantry. Sixteen other men were wounded and hospitalized.
While imperfect for sure, our success in the Renegade Woods came close to a textbook example of combined arms in action.
Four artillery batteries, firing 105mm guns and 155mm and 8-inch howitzers, had expended 741 rounds, mostly high explosives. Army aviation units that included Companies A and B of the 25th Aviation Battalion, the 116th, 118th and 187th Assault Helicopter companies, and Troop D, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, flew hundreds of missions. Massive support was furnished by the Air Force. The steel-nerved pilots of the 25th Infantry Division Tactical Air Control Party flew 36 missions in their OV-10s to direct and mark the locations on the ground for 18 airstrikes from A-37 and F-100 aircraft from three tactical fighter wings. The airstrikes dropped a total of 92 500-pound high-explosive bombs of various types, along with 48 500-pound napalm bombs and eight 750-pound napalm bombs. The Air Force also flew three missions by AC-119 Shadow aircraft.
While there was an element of luck in the unusual wealth of available assets to support our Renegade Woods battle, I remember Custer telling me once that we make our own luck. At its essence, however, Custer was simply following what was taught at the Infantry School in those days: Careful planning followed by violent execution of the plans.
After serving with the Wolfhounds, Howard Landon “Dutch” McAllister was commandant at Carolina Military Academy, public affairs officer at the National War College and chief of the Army News Service before his retirement in 1979.