When the troops of the Cacti Blue unleashed a crushing air combat assault, they had a VC Local Force Battalion right where they wanted: caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“Damn it!” I yelled. “What’s the matter with brigade? Can’t they make up their damn mind…we have an enemy unit located and they are sitting on their ass!” the operations officer of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry (2-35), the Cacti Blue. We had accurate but highly perishable information about the location of the Viet Cong 38th Local Force Battalion (38 LFB), a unit of more than 160 well-armed troops. They
It was late afternoon on August 7, 1967. I was were near the village of An Ba, and I was confident we could trap them and kill them since there were limited ways to escape—a river to their north and rice paddies to their west—before they could reach the safety of their mountain hideouts.
In the heavily populated coastal lowlands, An Ba was about 10 miles south of the city of Quang Ngai, which straddled Route 1 running north and south. Our location was farther south at landing zone (LZ) Liz, about 2,500 meters west of Route 1 and just south of Route 515, which rolled east to west along the Song Tra Cau river through Kontum and across the mountains into Laos. Route 515 was a key Viet Cong and North Vietnamese infiltration route. We now sat directly in their path, and had a VC battalion in our sights—but inexplicably, brigade headquarters refused to grant us an extension of our western operating boundary, which we needed to trap the enemy.
The 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division was part of Task Force Oregon, the northernmost Army unit in Vietnam. Its headquarters was at LZ Bronco, southeast of our position. Farther north of us it was all Marines. I was responsible to the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Norman Tiller, for the combat operations of this reinforced battalion. Colonel Tiller was as cool as any man I had ever seen under the stress of combat, but now he and I were getting frustrated. He chomped so hard on the plastic stem of his aluminum pipe that I feared for his teeth or the pipe: Which of them would snap first?
The last thing I wanted was to attack, pushing the enemy against the Song Ve river, only to have them slip across our boundary where we couldn’t pursue and escape west into the mountains. That’s when I yelled.
“I’ll call them again,” barked Master Sgt. David Butters.
We were connected to brigade only via radios. The sandbagged tactical operations center (TOC) was run by the operations sergeant, Master Sgt. Butters, and the intelligence sergeant, Master Sgt. Russ Streiber. Butters was not an NCO to be toyed with—he had loads of experience and a mind as sharp as a college professor. At the end of the doubled-up Conex containers were the radios hounded by three radio telephone operators who kept track of all that transpired inside this nerve center of combat operations. Now was one of those excruciating times when everything was beyond the control of those who sweated it out in the TOC.
Butters grabbed the mike for the secure radio of the brigade command net and, amid the squawks and screeches of the voice scrambler, demanded brigade get moving so we could plan what to do at first light the next morning. The answer came back just as it had before: No extension to our operations boundary. Apparently there were some troops from the 101st Airborne Division nearby, but no one was sure exactly where. We certainly didn’t want to have any Americans in the killing zone when we went in with a combat assault from the air—our helicopter gunships strafing and artillery falling all over the landing zone.
Desperate, I flew to brigade headquarters to have a one-on-one meeting with the brigade operations officer, Major Pete Houben. After some gnashing of teeth and a few hot words, I stressed to Houben that enemy information is like biscuits: great when fresh and steamy but not worth a damn when old and cold. Houben knew the reputation of our battalion—that if we were given this extension to our area of operations, we would go after this enemy unit and clobber it. We had done it before.
He finally relented, agreeing to push the unit on our northwestern flank for the boundary extension we wanted. Failing that, he would take the matter to Task Force Oregon’s commander at Chu Lai. Later that evening we got word that a limited boundary extension had come through. We immediately began planning for an assault early the next morning, hopeful that we had not revealed our hand to the 38 LFB. No overflights of the area, with helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, were allowed, nor any other activity that might suggest we were planning an assault. Only map reconnaissance was permitted. While grateful that we finally got the extension, we had lost a full day, and a lost day in this war could mean a lost enemy, or worse, a lost battle. I still was not happy.
Sleeping at a forward fire support base was never a good option. Artillery had this habit of blasting away just when you were about to catch some shut-eye, but we had become used to the guns firing. The worry about plans was another matter. Would the lift ships arrive on time and in the right number? Was the artillery liaison officer, Captain Red Herrick, up to speed? Were the troops all briefed and ready to be picked up at the appointed pickup zones? Most of all, had the enemy sniffed out our intentions? Or had the VC unit already moved west into the mountains, leaving us with a dry hole? Was the information we had gained from a surrendered enemy soldier really accurate and reliable? Maybe he was just blowing smoke to lead us astray—or worse, into an ambush. Amid these concerns, the bunk offered little comfort to me, Butters or the rest of the operations team. First light came quickly.
Hot coffee in a metal canteen cup is one of the great early-morning pleasures of infantrymen in the field. The smell of this Army tradition drifting into the TOC brought a smile to the team cloistered in the already steaming Conex containers, preparing for the ultimate infantry operation—a helicopter combat air assault directly into the face of a formidable enemy.
As we climbed aboard the command-and-control (C&C) helicopter, Lt. Col. Tiller and I were keenly aware that the TOC was the nerve center of a combat battalion. It was there that the data from all sources—enemy information, friendly locations, artillery fire support, close air support, the availability of helicopter lift ships—as well as every other scrap of information necessary to a successful combat operation, were pulled together for us. Based on that information, we had to make decisions that spelled life and death. Not only must those decisions be as correct as humanly possible, they had to be made quickly. To be late, one might as well be wrong. The pressure in the TOC during a combat operation was unequalled, as radios squawked, grease pencils marked, officers demanded and NCOs pushed everyone to the limit.
The battle was about to begin, but the enemy did not know it yet—we hoped. Out on the ground in rice paddies dried somewhat by the August sun, soldiers bunched into small groups of five or six, a single helicopter load. Sometimes the Hueys could only lift five because of the heat; and some Hueys were just weak, with too little power out of the turbine. But that was war, and we had to live with it. Company commanders watched to make sure no soldier was left behind. Mix-ups occurred and some got on the wrong chopper. And once they lifted off, there was no going back.
Cooled by the wind from the whirling rotors, the soldiers stood on the skids for the touchdown. Only seconds were allowed for the choppers to discharge their warrior cargo into the rice paddies below. The men scattered hoping to get some cover, any cover, before the enemy opened fire. Even rice paddy mud felt good when rounds cracked overhead. All the troops hoped for a cold LZ but were prepared for a hot one, with weapons at the ready. As they hit the ground, gunships strafed alongside the landing zones, screening the formations with thousands of rounds per minute. From farther away, artillery pounded the ground, sending great gushers of water and mud high into the air. Into this seeming chaos, the men of the Cacti Blue raced toward the various objectives set by the platoon leaders and company commanders. Some manuvered close to the rice paddy dike, others toward clumps of bamboo on the corner of a small village that more often than not concealed Viet Cong riflemen. But they all ran—if one could call sloshing through wet rice paddy mud running.
Then it was silent. Only the whup-whup-whup of departing helicopters broke the silence. There was no return fire; the LZ was cold, thank God.
Back at the TOC, reports filtered in: negative contact. Alpha Company was on the ground at grid coordinates BS669560; Charlie was at BS675560; and the battalion Reconnaissance Platoon was at BS679573. Not a single enemy shot was fired. Had the VC learned of our plans and fled the area? Were we late? Or had the reports from the prisoner been just BS? Damn, I thought—too many combat operations started with just so much frustration when searching for this elusive enemy. The Viet Cong seemed able to disappear into thin air, or rice paddy mud, only to surface later in the worst possible place.
Then the first bad news came in: A soldier from Alpha was hit by friendly rifle fire. Charlie Company had been following the normal procedure of reconnaissance by fire, but they had fired too far toward the west. The trooper, hit in the back, was losing blood fast, and it looked as if the bullet might have punctured his lung. We landed the C&C helicopter and loaded him aboard, flying him directly to the hospital. A chest wound is nothing to fool around with, because the lungs fill with blood and drown the person unless he is treated without delay. It was only 0830 hours.
Alpha Company was now ordered to sweep north toward the Song Ve. There was a gap of more than 2,000 meters stretching between Alpha’s initial landing zone positions and the river. Fortunately the enemy didn’t know this. But the VC could easily slip out to the west and escape to the mountains to fight another day.
North of the rifle companies’ locations, our light observation helicopters, the Aloha Birds, sighted several armed enemy soldiers fleeing toward the Song Ve trying to escape the firepower of an American infantry battalion. It looked as if the trap that we had set was about to be sprung on the 38th LF Battalion.
In the C&C helicopter, I monitored the battalion command radio net, listening to transmissions from the Aloha Birds and the company commanders as they reported into the TOC. It became clear that the enemy was on the run, but we had to block them from the mountains. At that point we decided to commit Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (1-14), which was under our operation control, west of the enemy and south of the Song Ve, with their left flank resting on the river. This was a possible enemy route of retreat into the mountains. It was the old “run rabbit run” ploy: chase them into Alpha 1-14, a sitting ambush. But, of course, no battle plan ever survives the first shot.
Unfortunately, Alpha 1-14 was nowhere near the action. It was miles away, somewhere southeast of LZ Liz. It could, however, assemble into a good pickup zone in a few minutes if we could get enough lift helicopters to pick up the troops.
The movement to the northeast by the battalion Reconnaisance Platoon, which had air assaulted into an LZ on the eastern side of the planned battle area, could effectively seal the easternmost flank. If only we could close the holes that remained to the north and to the west!
The Aloha Birds turned out to be the trick. We ordered them to fly over that northern gap area. Any enemy soldier trying to cross the Song Ve to the north would be exposed in the open water, where he would be an easy target. Shortly, the Aloha Birds were mowing down the enemy with their machine guns. We also called in heavier gunships to take out targets designated by the Alohas. More enemy sightings by the Alohas were reported west of Recon Platoon’s position. Now, the cornered 38 LFB was attempting to escape eastward, but that was a mistake as the Recon Platoon had moved to block that route by positioning itself directly east of An Ba. Any enemy trying to escape around that corner of the Song Ve would walk straight into Recon’s guns.
The reports of enemy contact started pouring in as the maneuver elements squeezed the trapped Viet Cong. Company A, 2-35, was in heavy contact with an enemy unit of undetermined size. Its troops were receiving automatic weapons fire from their west flank—my greatest worry. Had some enemy already escaped to the west? Or was this an attempt to reinforce the VC battalion with additional forces from the mountains—which in all likelihood would be NVA units? The intense firefight left two of our soldiers wounded, and because the C&C was busy sorting out the situation and unable to land, a dustoff helicopter had to be called in. We also were about to insert Alpha Company 1-14 into a western LZ as a blocking force. The TOC scrambled to get more lift ships, but time was slipping away. If we could not get a block into position in time, what could we do? The only place to put the block was beyond the boundary extension we had just been given the night before. What were our options? It was now clear from my aerial vantage point that we had Viet Cong everywhere, but we didn’t have them corralled yet. What remained to be seen was whether we could slam the door and shut down all routes of escape.
Then the worst news came from the Alpha Company commander, Captain Larry Hicks: One of his soldiers had been killed in the firefight. The dustoff pilot was alerted that he would pick up two wounded and one dead as soon as Alpha could get the LZ secure. Those troops were still receiving incoming automatic fire. It was impossible for any helicopter to survive sitting still when the enemy had automatic weapons trained on the LZ. The time was 1130 hours.
Fortunately, the brigade commander was airborne in his C&C ship all the while, monitoring our battalion command radio net from his position above us. He quickly recognized the peril concerning our boundary and gave his approval for us to make a combat air assault west of the boundary to establish the block. For once, thank goodness for higher command. It was precisely noon when our Alpha Company sent one platoon directly west to clear the area of enemy troops and stop the incoming fire. The dustoff could now land and evacuate the wounded and the dead.
The TOC finally managed to schedule lift ships for Alpha 1-14’s air assault into the area just south of the river and east of the Nui Duong mountain. By 1232, all of Alpha Company had hit the ground. The LZ was cold. We then decided to move that westernmost company to the east, sweeping the area of any enemy along the way until it linked up with our own Alpha Company, which was moving north into An Ba. The Aloha Birds were told to continue their surveillance so that no VC escaped across the diversion dams on the Song Ve. Their sharp eyes—and twin M-60 machine guns—wouldn’t let that happen.
Reports of enemy killed and weapons captured began to flood the command net. The trap was closed—we hoped. High above the battle area, two heavily armed Marine close air support jets circled, ready to unload their ordnance. Right behind them were Air Force jets from the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing. Our Air Force forward air controller was in radio contact with both flights. Because they were running low on fuel, as soon as I gave him the target and clearance, he turned the Marines loose. The Air Force could loiter longer. Sixteen 250-pound high drag bombs, six 500-pound bombs and eight 750-pound napalm canisters then rained from the sky, all dropped just north of the river to discourage any enemy from fleeing across as well as destroy any that had successfully reached the woods. Following that, the jets strafed the river’s north shore and the nearby woods with 20mm automatic cannon fire. That escape route out of the killing zone was now effectively shut.
By this time, the enemy body count was growing rapidly, as were the reports of weapons captured. We apparently had trapped the 38 LF Battalion headquarters, and some enemy officers were reported killed. Small skirmishes with the now disorganized enemy went on for the next hour or so, but soon there was only light contact as the rifle companies carefully combed the area for any Viet Cong hiding places while the Recon Platoon held its blocking position to the east.
By 1800 hours, quiet returned to the battlefield, except for the helicopters coming in to extract the American infantrymen. We lifted Alpha Company 1-14 to the battalion firebase at LZ Liz and our own Charlie Company to LZ Dragon, near Mo Duc district headquarters. The two remaining combat elements, our Alpha Company and Recon Platoon, laagered together in a night defensive position not far from where they had been inserted that morning. Lieutenant Colonel Tiller, Captain Herrick and I jumped out of the C&C helicopter at LZ Liz a little after 1900 hours, exhausted from a hard day of war.
At the end of the day the VC 38th Local Force Battalion had been decimated, with more than 65 killed in An Ba. Six were captured, along with three more individuals suspected of being Viet Cong but not yet classified as POWs. Twenty-one enemy weapons, including some crew-served, had been seized and turned in at LZ Liz. How many wounded limped away from this battlefield, no one knows. Our educated guess was that there had been 150 to 160 enemy at An Ba and vicinity when we launched the initial combat assault. Some escaped, but I doubt that many would look forward to their next fight with the Cacti Blue. As Colonel Tiller reported in the combat operations after action report, “only a handful of enemy evaded to tell the story of defeat.”
Butters and the TOC crew were all smiles when I entered, despite one of the most trying days of complex combat operations any of us had experienced. I was proud—not only of our infantry soldiers who had met the enemy and trapped them against the barricade of the river, but also of the tactical operations center’s magnificent success in coordinating air and artillery fire support under the most difficult of circumstances.
And brigade headquarters was proud as well: This had been one of their very best days, thanks to the men of the Cacti Blue.
Lieutenant Colonel Ben Crosby, U.S. Army (ret.), wrote the 2-35th Infantry’s after-action report on the Battle of An Ba. For additional reading, he recommends: The United States Army in Vietnam: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967, by George L. MacGarrigle; and A Distant Challenge: The U.S. Infantryman in Vietnam 1969-70, by the staff of Infantry Magazine.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.