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Flares light up Da Nang harbor during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Tet: ‘All Hell Is Breaking Loose’…Black Lions at An My

By Jeff Harvey
1/14/2016 • HistoryNet, Mag: Vietnam Events

As January 1968 drew to a close, it seemed my company, Alpha, would go the whole month without firing at the enemy. That was a quiet contrast to the last four months of 1967, when our battalion—1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment (known as the Black Lions), 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One)—had frequent contacts with Communist forces. We were still active in January, conducting road security operations and base camp security sweeps, but we just couldn’t find anyone to engage. Early on January 31, I received a radio transmission that changed everything.

That morning, as commander of Alpha Company, I was leading my unit on a security sweep in the rubber plantation south of our base camp at Quan Loi, about 90 kilometers north of Saigon. We had gone about 3 or 4 kilometers when I got a radio call from Major John Taylor, the operations officer, positioned at the battalion command post in Quan Loi.

“Alpha 6, this is Defiant 3,” Taylor said. “Return to base camp immediately.”

Earlier, around 10 a.m., the battalion’s executive officer, Major Dannie George, had been ordered to the division’s 1st Brigade tactical operations center, also at Quan Loi. (The battalion commander, Lt. Col. Frank Cochran, was on R&R). After the meeting, George called Taylor and ordered him to get the battalion ready for immediate movement. He didn’t give a reason. Taylor was simply told, “Just hurry,” and he quickly set the battalion in motion.

At the time, the battalion’s Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies were on perimeter security assignments. Charlie and Delta companies and the battalion reconnaissance platoon prepared to move, while Bravo stayed at Quan Loi, where it spread out to cover the battalion’s portion of the base perimeter. The 1st Brigade directed the battalion to pick one of its companies for an independent mission.

“I selected Alpha, my best company,” Taylor said. He directed Alpha to get on the road it had just crossed and “move with all haste” back to the airstrip at Quan Loi. Taylor dispatched trucks to pick up the Alpha infantrymen and sent helicopter gunships to protect them. He also ordered the battalion supply staff to grab “all the ammunition and C rations they could get their hands on” and take them to the airstrip.

After I got the call from Taylor ordering the hard hump back to base camp, I directed the rear platoon to become the point platoon. We moved out to the road and set a rapid pace. Everyone understood the urgency of the orders.

“No panic, no questioning, just immediate actions,” recalled Lieutenant Ed Knoll, the leader of Lima Platoon. (All platoons in the 1st Division’s infantry battalions were designated with alphabet-based call signs rather than with the usual ordinal numbers.)

Suddenly, a pilot from the team of Huey gunships contacted me. The gunships would cover us until we were back at base camp. This unusual level of security increased my already heightened senses and imagination. Then trucks, escorted by two M113A1 armored cavalry assault vehicles, came roaring down the road. We loaded up. I asked what was happening. The truckers and crews from the two ACAVs only knew that they were supposed to get us to Quan Loi airstrip—and do it fast. At the airstrip, we were met by supply crews who brought two jeeps with trailers loaded with ammunition and C rations. We hopped off the trucks, got the ammo and rations and scrambled to get into position for the Hueys on their way to pick us up.

The assistant operations officer told me we were going to Lai Khe, base camp for the tactical headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division, a couple of infantry battalions and other units. “All hell is breaking loose,” he said. Once in Lai Khe, I was to report to the 3rd Brigade tactical operations center for further instructions. Charlie and Delta companies and the battalion recon platoon were at the runway, also forming up for Hueys going to Lai Khe, 45 kilometers south of Quan Loi, on Highway 13.

The flight to Lai Khe paralleled Highway 13. As far north and south as we could see, there was a long convoy of armored 
vehicles and their support vehicles. They were part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which had been operating in the Loc Ninh area, just below the Cambodian border about 125 kilometers from Saigon. We were all moving toward Lai Khe. I assumed the base was under attack. I radioed my platoon leaders and directed them to be prepared for anything when we landed.

None of us knew then that the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had launched a major offensive timed to coincide with Vietnam’s New Year’s celebration, the Tet holiday, which began January 30. In the early morning of January 31, the NVA and VC struck more than 150 military installations and civilian areas all across South Vietnam. One of those sites was Lai Khe, where the Communists hoped to distract the 1st Infantry Division, which carried out operations north and west of Saigon and also guarded the major approaches to the city, including Highway 13.

As we approached Lai Khe’s airstrip, the helicopter crew chief told me the base camp was under rocket and mortar attack. We landed away from the airstrip operations building and an ammo dump, which were being targeted, and set up a defensive position off the edge of the strip in some rubber trees. The area around our position seemed to be deserted.

I had to find a way to report to the 3rd Brigade operations center and noticed a jeep near a small building. Looking around with 1st Sgt. Leroy Knight, we found an enlisted man in a bunker near the jeep and told him we were going to borrow the vehicle. It was fine by him. He wasn’t planning on leaving the bunker. He gave us directions to the brigade operations center, in the middle of the camp. I asked him if he knew what was happening. His reply: “All hell is breaking loose!” I informed my platoon leaders that I was leaving to get our instructions and ordered them not to move until they heard from me. I departed in the borrowed jeep with Knight and one of my radio operators.

When I reported to the brigade operations officer, I was given a radio frequency to monitor—and told to wait. I asked him what was happening and got what had become the stock answer: “All hell is breaking loose!” The operations center seemed chaotic. We returned to Alpha’s position at the airstrip to await instructions. In my absence, an unidentified major had tried to order the company to move out to the perimeter. My lieutenants informed him of my directive to stay put. The major, frustrated because no one would accept his orders, became irate and left, threatening to have every one of the platoon leaders relieved. My lieutenants, Kenny Albritton, Roger Antonelli, Ed Knoll and Rick Nagle, joked about the major’s threat. One said, “What was the major going to do? Send us to Nam?”

By late afternoon, we had not received any instructions. There were more rocket and mortar explosions near the ammo dump area, and a lot of choppers were coming and going. I kept checking with 3rd Brigade. Nothing. It was getting dark when I finally received a directive: Get to the airstrip operations building for pickup. We were needed at Di An, base camp for the 1st Infantry Division’s main headquarters, about 10 kilometers northeast of Saigon. As we were moving to the pickup area, there was another rocket and mortar attack.

“The rounds were moving in our direction,” remembered Spc. 4 Glen Pittman, a section leader in Oscar Platoon (mortars). “A couple of my new soldiers started to panic. I got them settled down.”

A loaded Huey gunship parked on the strip suffered a direct hit just as a flight of 20 or so choppers took off. The Huey started to burn, and its ammo began cooking off, so I positioned Alpha well away from the gunship. It was now dark, but the burning chopper was providing illumination. We saw Hueys coming in. We popped a smoke grenade, and they moved up to us. We hopped aboard, and off we went.

It was the first time anyone in Alpha had flown at night. The flight was spectacular, though a little eerie. We picked up over the trees and could see Highway 13 again. Headlights and taillights showed the 11th Armored Cavalry convoy still moving south. The countryside was aflame. Red tracers (friendly forces) and green tracers (NVA/VC) streaked across the sky. The convoy was firing as it moved, its fingers of red tracers reaching out from the road. Artillery flares illuminated the night everywhere, along with flashes of artillery, rocket and mortar fire. Helicopter gunships and the Air Force’s Lockheed AC-130 and Douglas AC-47 aircraft, equipped with Vulcan cannons and miniguns, kept firing as they circled targets below, creating red cones of light down to the targets.

“We saw a fantastic light show,” remembered Spc. 4 Norm Meier, a rifleman in Lima Platoon. But it was a dangerous one. One artillery shell burst about 200 yards away, on a level with our choppers, which immediately flew to a higher altitude.

We landed at Di An about 8 p.m. and were met by Captain Steve Wolfgram, assistant headquarters operations officer for 2nd Brigade. He took us to some buildings near the airstrip and filled us in. Wolfgram said U.S. troops were under fire throughout the southern part of the 1st Division’s area and in Saigon. Alpha Company would be the division’s reaction force, deployed wherever there was a hole to plug or a unit that needed assistance. I felt proud and frightened at the same time.

Alpha passed the night without any calls for help. In the lull, someone tuned a transistor radio to American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon, Meier remembered. “Finally we got some info about what was happening: ‘All hell is breaking loose’ all over.”

Earlier in the day, when the battalion had been forming up on the Quan Loi airstrip at the start of the operation, the 1st Brigade commander, Colonel George “Buck” Newman, made Taylor the commander of a battalion task force ordered to secure an airfield at Phu Loi, a base camp southeast of Lai Khe and northeast of Saigon. Task Force Taylor had a brief stop at Lai Khe, then Charlie and Delta companies and the recon platoon continued on to Phu Loi.

Phu Loi was a huge base camp. “With just two companies and the recon platoon,” Taylor said, “the best we could do was set up roving patrols around the airfield and protective revetments, thus protecting aircraft from VC sappers [commandos], and be a reaction force if any ground attack hit the base.”

On the evening of January 31, Taylor heard reports of large enemy movements around the hamlet of An My, about 2 kilometers off the northwest end of Phu Loi’s airstrip. During the night, Charlie and Delta companies and the battalion recon platoon were bolstered with firepower from the 1st Division’s B Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, which consisted of ACAVs, a tank platoon and a platoon of M42 Dusters, armored vehicles with a turret that housed two 40mm anti-aircraft guns. The battalion had become a combined-arms task force of about 300 men.

At daylight on February 1, Taylor sent his men across open fields to the An My area to check out the reports of enemy activity. The task force came under heavy fire as it neared An My. There were more NVA than the battalion had seen since early December 1967 at Bu Dop, a big battle about 2 kilometers from Cambodia and an NVA sanctuary. It was estimated that Taylor’s force was facing about 1,500 enemy troops.

Taylor asked for more troops—Alpha troops specifically. “I wanted a company that was tested,” he said. “I requested infantry and armor-type ammo, which was in short supply on an aviation base.” The assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Emil Eschenburg, quickly approved both requests.

While waiting for reinforcements, the troops at An My continued fighting with what they had. At one point all of the men in one Duster crew were wounded. “Men from either Charlie or Delta, I can’t remember, jumped on the Duster and took over its operation for the rest of the fight,” Taylor said. “The Duster platoon leader was so impressed by their proficiency he wanted to keep them. This was the first time that any of my soldiers had seen a Duster. They quickly figured out how to operate it while under fire.”

At Di An, Alpha Company’s radio operator was monitoring the battalion network. We could hear Taylor’s transmissions and knew the battalion was in a big battle just outside the Phu Loi camp. Several Alpha soldiers were sitting, listening. Drew Bozek, a specialist 4 rifleman in Lima Platoon, said he had never heard anyone on the radio as calm and controlled as Major Taylor with “all hell breaking loose.” Expecting to be called in soon to help Taylor, Alpha Company saddled up. The order to move to the airstrip came quickly.

While we were in flight to Phu Loi, Taylor quickly explained his situation. After we landed, while the rest of the company stayed on the Hueys, I took my platoon leaders with me for a briefing by General Eschenburg. Over the general’s shoulder, about 2 kilometers away across a flat field and along a tree line bordering An My, we saw the battle. There were explosions from artillery, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, accompanied by firing from the ACAVs and automatic weapons.

The general finished his briefing and said, sounding like a John Wayne character, “We must kill them so they will not live to fight another day.” Lieutenants Knoll and Albritton burst out laughing. He stared at them and then at me with a shocked look on his face. I said, “General, they’re just a little nervous.” He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I understand.”

Hueys landed us in a field behind Task Force Taylor. We received fire on the way down, and it continued as we moved to the right of the battle and took positions behind a low berm that bordered An My. The plan called for the task force to move forward in an abreast formation and assault enemy forces in the village. Alpha was assigned to the formation’s right flank.

While waiting to move, we received small-arms fire from the far end of the berm on our right. I radioed the information to Taylor and recommended that Alpha keep its right side tied to the berm, stopping any enemy flanking efforts to get behind the task force. Taylor agreed. Alpha’s armor support crews had not arrived when we were given the signal to move out, but they were headed in our direction as we went over the berm, so I popped smoke, which showed them our location as we advanced.

Crossing the berm, we were giving and receiving heavy fire. I saw a medic treating a November Platoon soldier. There were NVA bodies and weapons scattered around the battlefield. “The whole area was a target-rich environment,” rifleman Bozek said. “There seemed to be NVA everywhere in front of us. I saw Spc. 4 Frank Ward, a Lima rifleman, jump into a trench. He found some live NVA in the trench and started shooting and jumping around. He jumped back out of the trench. As we passed the trench we saw a bunch of dead NVA in it.”

We slowly progressed forward. The armor platoon leader radioed to say that the smoke had died out and he needed another marker. I got my company radio operator, Specialist Dillard Massengale, and moved back toward the berm to throw another smoke grenade. Massengale saw one of the NVA bodies move. At the same time, I noticed a large Chinese-made Claymore mine had been set up near the moving body, aimed in our direction. Massengale grabbed my M16 and made sure that the NVA soldier would not move again. I knocked the mine face down and yanked out the electrical wire.

We threw the requested smoke. The armor came over the berm. Our support was an M48A3 Patton tank, a Duster and three ACAVs. I quickly briefed the platoon leader, who was on one of the cavalry assault vehicles. He moved the tank and Duster into position between Lima and November platoons. The ACAVs were between November and Mike platoons on our right. The armored vehicles put out a lot of fire. But they also drew a lot of fire. I was astounded to see the crews just sitting on top of the vehicles behind thin-looking armor plates, firing their weapons as rapidly as possible.

Lieutenant Albritton, November Platoon’s leader, climbed on the tank to direct its fire. He was crouched beside the turret gesturing to the tank commander. I saw him and motioned him to get down. As he started to jump off the tank, he was hit. Richard “Doc” Hardy, Alpha’s senior medic, was on him as he hit the ground. The lieutenant had a bad-looking chest wound. He was evacuated by helicopter with other wounded.

A Lima Platoon rifleman, Spc. 4 Dusty Williams, said that as he advanced into An My’s small village, he had seen the tank with Albritton come up close on his right. “I saw movement behind a tree about 20 meters ahead of us, then saw the lieutenant take a round,” Williams recalled. “While others were attending to him, I focused on the tree. I saw a dark shape come up out of the ground with a rifle, so I fired a short burst. The figure went down. I kept watch as we moved forward. I saw a spider hole with a black pajama-clad body half out. I notched one for the lieutenant.”

Major Taylor ordered the task force to break contact and return to Phu Loi because the combined-arms force was also the base camp’s defense force. The plan was for artillery and gunships to pound the An My area all night, and the task force would go back in the next morning, February 2, to clear the village. We started to withdraw at 5:35 p.m., picking up enemy documents, ammo and weapons as we went.

We received word that night that Albritton had died. He later received the Silver Star Medal for his actions that day.

American losses during the February 1 battle at An My totaled one killed and 19 wounded in the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry; four killed and 13 wounded in the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry; and four wounded in the Duster platoon. Additionally, one ACAV was destroyed.

There were 65 confirmed enemy dead. The captured weapons included five AK-47s, one rocket-propelled grenade launcher and three rounds, one heavy machine gun on wheels with ammo, mortar rounds, one light machine gun, a K-50, one U.S. carbine and medical supplies. One heavy machine gun on wheels and a large Claymore mine were destroyed.

Shortly after daybreak on February 2, we had begun forming up for the move back to An My when General Eschenburg arrived and presented Silver Star medals to two deserving soldiers, Alpha’s Spc. 4 Frank Ward and Delta’s Sgt. 1st Class Ryan.

By 10 a.m., the task force began sweeping through An My. We met much lighter resistance than the day before. But just hours after receiving his medal, Ryan was killed. The sweep was completed by late afternoon. The task force of three companies, the recon platoon, Cavalry Troop B and a Duster platoon had successfully fought two NVA regiments during the two days at An My.

The 1st Battalion of the Black Lions continued to engage in firefights through the month, including another heavy battle with a NVA regiment in the Thu Duc area just outside of Di An on February 20. We didn’t return to our base camp at Quan Loi until March 1. H

Jeff Harvey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, was commanding officer of Alpha Company from October 1967 to March 1968. Harvey wrote this article with assistance from John Taylor, a retired lieutenant colonel who commanded Alpha Company from June to July 1967 and was operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, August 1967 to June 1968. The recollections of other soldiers were taken from oral histories compiled by the battalion’s Alpha and Headquarters companies.

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