The fog of war was especially thick on the morning of January 31, 1968. While much has been written about Tet and the political firestorm that resulted, in the hundreds of surprise battles and skirmishes that unfolded, individual units found themselves thrust into intense danger, turmoil, chaos, confusion, contradictions and outright lunacy as they responded to Viet Cong (VC) attacks. This is the story of one rifle company—comprised of some of the finest soldiers to ever wear the uniform of the U.S. Army—and what they all faced on that decisive day.
In April 1967, I was a first lieutenant commanding a rifle company in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. In command for five months, I had been assured that I would be leading the company for one year, which suited me fine. My plan was to make captain and go to Vietnam as an experienced company commander. Since I was in an airborne unit, it seemed certain that I would go to the 173rd Airborne Brigade or the 101st Airborne Division.
Consequently, I was disappointed when I received orders to join the 9th Infantry Division. Not only would I not finish my command tour, but I was also being assigned to a “leg” division. When I arrived at 9th Division in June, I was further shocked to learn that I was going to a mechanized battalion, rather than be assigned to one of the battalions in the Delta where I could use my light infantry and Ranger school experience. My only previous contact with M-113 armored personnel carriers (APCs) was during a training exercise at the officers’ basic course.
At the headquarters of the 2nd Battalion (Mechanized), 47th Infantry (2-47), nicknamed the Panthers, the commander, Lt. Col. Arthur Moreland, asked me what job I wanted. I told him that I wanted to command a company. He replied that I would have to wait. I was to be a platoon leader again, in Charlie Company, commanded by Captain John Ionoff. After commanding 180 paratroopers, taking on four APCs and 40 troops seemed like a dream—except that now I was responsible for troops in combat, not training.
In mid-September, when Ionoff moved to battalion headquarters to become the operations officer (S3), I assumed command of Company C. In October, the 2-47 was tasked to secure engineers as they cleared Highway 1 from Xuan Loc to the II Corps boundary near Phan Thiet. The battalion made only sporadic contact and suffered few casualties.
As my airborne mentality faded, I learned to love the M-113—or “track.” We could haul more personal gear, live more comfortably and walk less than straight-leg troops. Each APC could carry almost as much ammunition as a dismounted rifle company. In a fight, the company had 22 .50-caliber machine guns, a 106mm and several 90mm recoilless rifles, and more radios and M-60 machine guns than a walking company could ever carry. We could ride, walk or be airlifted to war, and we arrived with many times the ammo and equipment that could be lifted in by helicopter. We could use our tracks as a base of fire or in a blocking position as the company maneuvered on foot. We carried concertina wire, sand bags and hundreds of Claymore mines and trip flares to make our defensive positions practically impenetrable.
Gradually, I became a mechanized soldier. When offered the chance to go to II Field Force to help establish a new long-range reconnaissance patrol outfit, I turned it down to stay with the company.
During December we made little enemy contact, probably because the Communists were lying low, preparing for Tet. In January 1968, our battalion relocated to the area between Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa, where intelligence had located a VC battalion. On January 23, during a battalion sweep through heavy jungle south of Highway 1, Alpha Company walked into a camouflaged, well-defended enemy bunker system and was badly mauled. Four men were killed and more than 20 wounded, including most of the officers. Charlie Company quickly reinforced Alpha, and a daylong fight ensued. At dusk, airstrikes had to be called in to blast the VC from the hill. The battle proved significant, as Alpha’s leadership was seriously depleted immediately prior to Tet.
Then, for the last week in January, the 2-47 was sent south of the 9th Division’s base camp to patrol the jungles east of Highway 15, near the Binh Son rubber plantation.
When the Tet cease-fire period began on January 28, the battalion was called back to the vicinity of Bear Cat, a base camp near Long Thanh. Charlie Company was ordered to a large open field across Highway 15 from the Long Thanh airfield. From our positions we could see and hear the celebratory fireworks lighting the sky over Saigon to the west.
The II Field Force commander, Lt. Gen. Frederick C. Weyand, had correctly predicted a major attack during Tet, and his anticipation no doubt saved Long Binh and Saigon from being overrun. The 2-47 was one of several units he pulled in from the jungles to guard the Long Binh headquarters and logistical complex 15 miles northeast of Saigon.
Early on January 30, we were told the Tet cease-fire was canceled, and our unit was deployed into a defensive line along the road that ran around the east side of the Long Binh base. The recon platoon was ordered to establish a blocking position south of Long Binh on Highway 15. The 1st Platoon of Bravo Company was made the II Field Force reaction force and was placed in the PX parking lot at Long Binh. Charlie Company’s 3rd Platoon was also detached for a security mission inside the base. Alpha Company, still licking its wounds from the January 23 fight, was left intact.
The three companies formed a line almost three kilometers long, facing east, with their backs to the Long Binh wire, based on the mistaken assumption that the VC would attack from the jungle. In fact, the Communists had already infiltrated the city of Bien Hoa, suburban Ho Nai village and Widow’s Village, where pensioned families of deceased ARVN soldiers lived. Widow’s Village made a perfect attack position, since it lay directly across Highway 316 from II Field Force headquarters. Dressed as travelers returning to ancestral homes for the Tet holiday, the guerrillas had quietly drifted into their urban assembly areas and put together their weapons.
Toward dusk on January 30, Charlie Company soldiers stripped to the waist to dig bunkers next to their APCs. As the sun sank over the Long Binh base, they tossed a football and ate cold C rations. All night they scanned the jungles with Starlight scopes, seeing nothing.
At 3 a.m. on January 31, I received a call from Major Bill Jones, who had recently taken Ionoff’s place as operations officer. He stated that Bien Hoa airbase, the Long Binh facility, the II Field Force headquarters and the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB) base camp were under heavy mortar and rocket attack. This was no surprise to us, since we could hear the enemy rounds slamming into Long Binh.
As usual, each company had sent two ambush patrols into the jungle to our front. At 4 a.m., Jones ordered us to pull in our ambushes and be prepared to move, and told Charlie Company’s noncombatants to report to battalion headquarters. We all knew these moves were more than precautionary.
We packed up our gear, rolled up our wire and waited. I was not sure what to do about the bunkers. Policy was to fill in all holes and empty our sandbags when we left a position, to leave nothing the VC might use against us. I called battalion headquarters and was told to forget about them, which reinforced our sense that combat was imminent.
At about 6 a.m., Lt. Col. John Tower, the new battalion commander, called with orders. Normally, operations orders issued over the radio were encoded and sent by the operations officer’s radio operator. In another sign that the situation was serious, the battalion commander himself gave map coordinates of company objectives in the clear.
Alpha Company was ordered to the 199th LIB compound, which was under attack. Now commanded by a brand-new second lieutenant, the men of Alpha Company balked when they were told to move. Tower sent Major Jones to take command, and once Alpha got moving, it did a magnificent job. Bravo Company was sent to protect the Long Binh ammunition dump and Charlie Company was ordered into downtown Bien Hoa, where the ARVN III Corps headquarters was in danger of being overrun.
After I got the coordinates of our objective, I yelled, “Crank ’em up!” into the radio handset. We rolled through Long Binh and out the main gate, then turned onto Highway 316. The 2nd Platoon led the way under Lieutenant Fred Casper, followed by my track, then Lieutenant Howard Jones’ 1st Platoon and, finally, the weapons platoon under Lieutenant Don Muir. The Commo track, C-007, nicknamed Abdula and the Rug Merchants, with Pfc (current Vietnam editor) David Zabecki behind the .50-caliber, brought up the rear. We charged southeast down Highway 316 to the Highway 15 intersection, situated on a small hill overlooking the 90th Replacement Company. As we rolled by, we looked down into the compound and saw soldiers in khakis milling about with boarding passes in hand. But no one would be leaving the country that day.
As we turned right onto Highway 15, an unbelievable spectacle stretched before us. Having been struck by mortars or rockets, the fuel tanks at the air base, as well as several buildings throughout Bien Hoa, were burning brightly. Flames illuminated the clouds, forming an eerie glow; flares hung in the sky and helicopter gunships crossed back and forth firing red streams of tracers into the city.
Through sporadic fire, we continued northwest on Highway 15 to where it intersected Highway 1 on the western edge of Bien Hoa. As we made the turn eastward on Highway 1, the lead platoon was ambushed. We opened up with everything we had and kept driving. We had run through the rear of the 274th VC Regiment, which was attacking the airfield. As we cleared the ambush, the column suddenly came to a halt because of some kind of block in the road; simultaneously, someone keyed the company net. With a push-to-talk button stuck in the transmit position, no one could use the radio. I jumped down and ran from track to track, pounding on the sides and yelling, “Check your handsets!” As I ran back through the weapons platoon in the pre-dawn gloom, with small-arms fire cracking overhead, I was amazed to see young girls carrying bottles of Coca-Cola, trying to sell them to the troops.
After the roadblock was cleared and communications restored, Charlie Company continued toward its objective. At 7 a.m., as daylight was breaking, my track rolled past the ARVN III Corps compound gate. I realized we were driving past our objective, halted the company and called for the 2nd Platoon to find a place to turn around. As the C-23 track in the lead, Stormy, turned into a side street, a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) slammed into its front, smashing the radiator and wounding several soldiers. A VC guerrilla hiding behind a parked ARVN jeep had fired the rocket. Despite the confusion and wounds, our troops returned fire. The VC who had fired the RPG slipped away, but Pfc Jim Love, who was tossed into a sewage ditch by the explosion, remembers “killing the jeep” with his M-16.
Several soldiers gathered in front of the track to help the wounded, and Love climbed up to man the .50-caliber. Just then a three-man VC RPG team calmly walked across the street right in front of the damaged APC. Love was so startled, he didn’t fire.
“I realize now that the track was high enough that the rounds would have passed over” the troops in front of the vehicle, Love recalls. “I yelled at Lieutenant Casper, and everybody looked around as the VC tore out running the last few yards to safety. We threw grenades over the wall behind them, but hit nothing.”
Under fire, Staff Sgt. Benny Toney, the 2nd Platoon sergeant, hooked a tow cable to Stormy. The 2nd Platoon pulled the damaged track out of the side street and towed it back to the III Corps compound. There, Charlie Company soldiers joined ARVN and U.S. MACV soldiers manning the walls. Zabecki remembers taking his place on the wall with his M-79 grenade launcher. Our arrival had canceled fears that III Corps headquarters might be overrun.
As our medics treated the wounded, I reported to the American lieutenant colonel who was the III Corps G3 adviser. Tower had called and told me Charlie Company was under the operational control of III Corps and I was to take my orders from them. They ordered us to clear the VC from the houses surrounding the corps headquarters. I assigned areas of operation to my two rifle platoons, and positioned the weapons platoon inside the compound as a reserve and security force. But their 81mm mortars were useless, since we were told we could not put any indirect fire into the town.
Charlie Company soldiers, used to months of patrolling and fighting in the jungles, suddenly found themselves fighting house to house as their fathers had done in World War II. During this fighting, the two platoon leaders were wounded, Lieutenant Casper in the leg and Lieutenant Jones in the foot. Refusing evacuation, neither reported his wound. They both hobbled through the rest of the day’s fighting.
The combat around III Corps headquarters was intense. According to the VC 5th Division official history, the 3rd Battalion, 5th VC Regiment was supported by the Bien Hoa Sapper Company; its mission was to overrun the compound, which was defended by about 15 ARVN soldiers and a smattering of MACV advisers. However, Charlie Company slammed into the VC before they could organize their attack.
Sergeant John Ax, squad leader of 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, recalls the fighting near III Corps: “An RPG hit Shocker, the C-21 track, in the side; but it must have been a glancing blow, because it did not explode. It knocked a dimple in the side of the track as I fired up the gunner.”
Later in the fighting, Casper and several 2nd Platoon troops were pinned down next to a building. Casper rose from the prone position and yelled for his troops to follow him. “When Lieutenant Casper jumped up, our legs became entangled and I tripped him,” Ax remembers. “As he fell, a burst of automatic weapons fire stitched the wall right where he would have been had he not fallen.” (Casper, one of the bravest of the brave, died during the May offensive in Saigon, leading from the front.)
After we finished clearing the area around the compound and as our wounded were being dusted off, I received an absolutely incredible order from III Corps. The G3 adviser told me that they had received intelligence that Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese commanding general, had his command post in a Catholic church about 1 kilometer east of III Corps. We were ordered to go there and detain every male between the ages of 16 and 80. To get to the church, we had to run a gantlet of fire, through the VC 238th Regiment and into the flank of the 275th, which was fighting the 2-47’s scout platoon in Widow’s Village. We fired all we had into the buildings lining the roadway and took several wounded while getting to the church.
When we arrived, we found the churchyard packed with thousands of civilians. I called III Corps to report that we had detained all of these people, and was told to wait for the Vietnamese National Police to take charge. A few minutes later, a jeep drove up carrying two extremely frightened white-shirted policemen. As best I could, I explained that they were to take charge and that General Giap might be among the civilians. They bowed and looked confused.
Meanwhile, Charlie Company was ordered back to III Corps. As we turned to head back, a tremendous blast shook the whole city of Bien Hoa. The Long Binh ammo dump had exploded. Satchel charges blew pallets of artillery ammunition, creating a mushroom cloud that made us think the VC had set off a tactical nuclear weapon.
We suffered more wounded during the trip back to III Corps, where I was called to a meeting in the headquarters. As I walked around the front of a track, the .50-caliber gunner accidentally hit the trigger and pumped five rounds into the ground about three feet in front of me. All I could think of to say was, “Please clear that weapon!”
During the meeting, a master sergeant adviser to a Vietnamese ranger battalion ran into the compound. He said his battalion was in heavy contact, and he had several wounded rangers he needed to evacuate. He wanted to borrow one of our tracks. When the G3 adviser told me to lend the rangers a track, I told the sergeant that the M-113 was not a tank and to be careful with it. He manned the .50 and, with a Charlie Company driver, headed down Highway 1. About 30 minutes later, the track was back with only the driver, who reported the ranger sergeant had been killed and that it had been impossible to get the wounded.
At the meeting, I was joined by the S3 of a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division. The Vietnamese brigadier general—the ranking man at III Corps—drew circles on a map around two areas of downtown Bien Hoa. He assigned one to the airborne battalion and the other to Charlie Company. When I pointed out that the 101st Battalion had more than 500 troops and I had only two line platoons and less than 90 troops, he said, “You’re mechanized, you’re very strong.”
I told him we couldn’t take the tracks off Highway 1 into town because the streets were too narrow. He waved me off. I walked back to my track, thinking this was going to be a nightmare. I told the platoon leaders to prepare to dismount and to take all the ammunition and grenades they could carry. Then I got a call from battalion commander Tower, asking how things were going. I told him about the order to clear an area of operations equal in size to that assigned the airborne battalion.
“Forget that,” he said. “I’ve just been told you work for me again. Come back up on the battalion freq.” I had never been so happy in my life. The ARVN general and III Corps G3 adviser, however, were not happy when we pulled out.
Tower ordered Charlie Company to attack eastward to clear the village of Ho Nai, a Bien Hoa suburb. No tactic I had learned at infantry school fit that situation, so we improvised. We came up with a “T” formation. I dismounted the platoons and placed them on line on each side of the road: the second on the left, or north, and the first on the right, or south. The platoons attacked by successive bounds through the village as the tracks, forming the base of the “T,” gave fire support from the .50s and resupplied the troops with ammo.
The progress was slow and ammo was becoming scarce, particularly grenades, which get consumed at an enormous rate in city fighting. As the 2nd Platoon began to run short, Spc. 4 Joseph “Sugar Bear” Dames returned to the tracks for more grenades. Dames walked down a side alley toward the highway. Suddenly he came upon a VC RPG team drawing a bead on my command track, which was a prime target given the number of radio antennas jutting from it. Unfortunately for the VC, they had no weapons other than the RPG launcher. Dames killed them with a burst from his M-16 probably saving the lives of everyone on my track.
As enemy resistance stiffened, we realized we had bottled at least a company of the VC 275th Regiment in the village. The 2-47’s scout platoon had just finished a brutal fight in Widow’s Village, and at 4 p.m., it was ordered to move to the junction of Highways 1 and 316, and to attack westward through the village of Ho Nai toward Charlie Company, in the hope of pinning the VC between us. As 1st Lt. Brice Barnes led his scouts into Ho Nai, he ran full speed into a hornet’s nest. Several tracks were hit by RPGs and surrounded by the enemy. Listening to the scouts’ desperate fight on the radio, Charlie Company attacked with renewed vigor as we tried to get to Barnes and his men.
Fighting our way to the scout platoon, we were stopped when we came upon two large churches, straddling Highway 1, each occupied by VC. The 2nd Platoon took the one north of the road, the 1st Platoon attacked the other. Troops opened their attacks with volleys of grenades, then charged in shooting. The churches were cleared in short order.
After the fight for the churches, there occurred one of the most bizarre and inexplicable incidents of the day. An MP full colonel, accompanied by a Los Angeles deputy sheriff (dressed in his deputy uniform) and two jeeploads of National Police, drove up to my track. The colonel explained that since we were infantry soldiers and did not know the proper method of searching a house, he and his crew had come to teach us. I told the colonel that this was not a police action, that we weren’t searching houses, we were in combat. He ignored me and went to a nearby house where he and the deputy sheriff kicked in the front door. At that moment, a burst of VC machine gun fire erupted, causing the colonel, the deputy and their Vietnamese escorts to pile into their vehicles and roar off in the direction from whence they had come. We never saw them again.
We closed within a few hundred meters of the scout platoon and watched as helicopter gunships destroyed a large yellow house from which the VC were pinning down Barnes’ troops. As the Hueys’ rockets smashed the VC strongpoint, the scouts fought their way out of the encirclement and evacuated their dead and wounded. Lieutenant Barnes and one of his soldiers would be awarded Distinguished Service Crosses for their heroism that day.
As the scouts escaped, the volume of enemy fire began to slacken, then died altogether. All day civilians had been darting from their homes and running from the fighting. Now someone pointed out that there were a lot of young men, all dressed in black pants and white shirts, walking among the refugees. Simultaneously, platoon leaders reported finding discarded AK-47s. Then a report came in that a body had been found wearing a white shirt under a black pajama tunic. It dawned on us that the VC were throwing down their weapons, changing clothes and slipping away. We began detaining the well-dressed young men among the refugees.
Meanwhile, Hueys reported VC running from the village. The armed helicopter teams had a field day shooting guerrillas trying to flee into the jungle. Later, captured VC said many guerrillas only had two magazines for their weapons in expectation that the population would rise up against the Americans and have plenty of captured weapons to fight with.
As darkness settled in, Charlie Company was ordered back to the junction of Highways 1 and 316, where we would form a screen in front of the 199th LIB base camp. Rolling back through Bien Hoa, we were astounded to come upon the battalion S4, Captain Leroy Brown, in the middle of town with a 5,000-gallon fuel tanker and several ammunition trucks. Bringing that volatile convoy through the city, which had not been totally cleared and was still burning in many places, was a tremendously heroic act. We topped off our fuel tanks, replenished our ammo and continued to move toward our assigned blocking position.
That night, frightened bunker guards in the 199th compound shot into the darkness to their front. The only trouble was that Charlie Company tracks were sitting in the road right in front of their bunkers. We began to pop hand-held flares so they could see we were there, but the shooting persisted, one round hitting my track. After much frequency changing, I finally got the commander of the bunker guards on the radio. Specialist 4 Bill Rambo, assistant driver and .50-gunner on my command track, remembers my response to the firing as being absolutely irate. According to him, I told him that any fool could see that the VC did not have M-113s, and that we had 22 .50-calibers and a 106mm recoilless rifle and they, for sure, did not want us to return fire. Soon we could hear leaders moving up and down the bunker line yelling for the guards to stop firing.
As dawn broke on February 1, it was deathly quiet. The village of Ho Nai, now a ghost town, still smoldered. Incredibly, nobody in my company had been killed the day before. Charlie Company had reported 38 VC killed, at the cost of only 11 U.S. wounded and three APCs damaged by RPGs. In addition we detained more than 20 probable VC fighters dressed in civilian clothes. The 2-47’s enemy body count came in at more than 200, while the battalion suffered only four KIA. An accurate body count could never be compiled since so many VC bodies were dragged away or were burned in the many fires that ravaged the towns and villages.
Although initially surprised, U.S. forces had reacted quickly. The VC attacks on Bien Hoa and the Long Binh complex were abject failures, due in part to the fact that on January 31, 1968, they had run into the Panthers of the 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry.
This article was written by John E. Gross and originally published in the February 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Vietnam magazine today!