In the last few days of October 1969, thousands of North Vietnamese Army troops surrounded a small, dangerously isolated firebase defended by about 150 Special Forces–led Montagnard fighters and a handful of American artillerymen. For five days the NVA pummeled the football field–size firebase near the Cambodian border with mortars, artillery, recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire while periodically launching ground assaults against the beleaguered defenders. With two of Firebase Kate’s three artillery pieces knocked out early in the siege, the defenders would most certainly have been overrun without the vital air support provided by Army helicopter gunships and by Air Force fighter-bombers, gunships and a massive B-52 “Arc Light” saturation bombing mission that blasted the surrounding jungle with more than 300 500-pound and 750-pound bombs.
No less important to the defenders’ survival during the ordeal were the resupply and medevac helicopter missions, flown at great risk and under heavy enemy fire, bringing in ammunition and water and evacuating casualties. Finally, nearly out of ammunition and water and alerted by reports that the NVA was preparing an overpowering, all-out assault, the firebase commander, Special Forces Captain William Albracht, successfully led the remaining Montagnard and American defenders in a daring escape on foot through enemy lines on the night of November 1. The cost to Kate’s defenders for enduring the five-day firestorm was 15 of 27 American artillerymen wounded, one killed and one missing. About a third of the 156 Montagnard fighters led by Albracht (also wounded) were killed or wounded. Additionally, four helicopter crewmen were killed.
The obvious question that readers will want answered is: Do we really need two books on this combat action? Well, yes, we do. Abandoned in Hell, William Albracht’s first-person account of how, as a young captain in his first combat action, he led Firebase Kate’s defense is the most detailed, thorough and insightful presentation of the ordeal. That, of course, is quite understandable given Albracht’s personal involvement as the officer who made the command decisions and took the desperate actions required to defend the firebase.
Indeed, Albracht not only describes what he did but is the only person able to tell us authoritatively and exactly why he did it. He shares with readers the emotions he felt while struggling to keep the tiny firebase’s defenses intact and functioning amid the hailstorm of NVA fire and periodic waves of enemy ground attacks that had to be repelled. Albracht’s personal account stands as one of the Vietnam War’s outstanding combat memoirs by an on-scene commander. Moreover, Abandoned in Hell features a superb foreword by Joseph L. Galloway, co-author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.
Yet The Siege of LZ Kate, by Arthur G. Sharp, an author of numerous nonfiction books and articles, is also a valuable addition to the histories of the war. Although one-third shorter than Abandoned in Hell and less detailed, it nonetheless is a solid account that covers all the action. Sharp’s book would be a good case study on a Vietnam War combat action for military service schools (provided instructors supplement it with appropriate maps; there are none in the book).
Also noteworthy, Sharp devotes more space than Albracht does to the two dozen American artillerymen defending Kate: the 105mm howitzer crewmen of 5th Battalion, 22nd Field Artillery, and the crews of the two 155mm howitzers of 1st Battalion, 92nd Field Artillery. Although American infantrymen—the grunts at the “sharp end” of the ground war—deservedly have more books written about them, those who spent their tours providing artillery fire support from Vietnam’s ubiquitous firebases will appreciate Sharp’s coverage of their vital service.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2016 issue.