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A small advisory team’s success at ‘clear and hold’ in the most hostile district in South Vietnam made it a must kill for the NVA.

On a clear September morning, we roll south from Quang Ngai City down Route 516 looking for a battlefield of long ago. Dr. John Speck, myself and two friends who have never before been in Vietnam soak in the early morning still of the countryside. Speck and I served together in 1971 with Advisory Team 17, headquartered in Quang Ngai in a beautiful old walled compound built by the French. Now, we look back more than 37 years to the day when we faced a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) battalion, specifically tasked to drive out the multinational advisers who were having such success in this difficult district.

The lessons we learned in 1971 are as applicable today in Iraq and Afghanistan as they were in Vietnam. Long before General David Petraeus and his staff authored the current counterinsurgency manual, General Creighton Abrams had changed the tactics in Vietnam from “search and destroy” to “clear and hold.” Officially known as “community defense and development,” to clear and hold meant, in its simplest terms, living with the locals. The advisory team executed this tactic at the community level, working side-byside with the Vietnamese, to help them build dams for irrigation, houses for those displaced by war and to protect farmers as they carried their rice to market. Clear and hold meant more to us than battles. We had to become one with the populace in spite of our limited communication capabilities. It was the positive results of our efforts with the locals in this enemy-dominated district that led directly to our harrowing fight for our lives in February 1971.

Clear and hold caused the Viet Cong (VC) forces, who were being pushed away from the local people in the district, to seek NVA support. The North Vietnamese response was direct and dynamic—send a battalion to destroy the Nghia Hanh district headquarters and all those within. Fortunately, we found the NVA first.

When I arrived in Saigon in the winter of 1970 for assignment with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) under General Abrams, I was told by his deputy, Bill Colby, who was head of the rural pacification effort at the time and went on to become director of the CIA, that the Nghia Hanh district in Quang Ngai province was one of the worst. Near Ho Chi Minh’s birthplace, it remained a Communist stronghold. Yet the advisory team—a handful of American advisers, two American Military Assistance Training Teams (MATTs) and an Australian MATT—was expected to “pacify” Nghia Hanh.

Now, with our return to Vietnam 37 years later, we have come to visit a battlefield to understand how it was possible that this handful of Westerners plus some Regional forces, mostly Montagnards (we called them “Yards”), faced off against an NVA battalion sent to destroy them.

Speck and I plan to share this experience with our friends Byron Brooks and Jack May. But first, we have to find the battlefield— not an easy task, since the changes from that day to this overwhelm us. Vietnam is not the place we knew in 1971.

Before we tromp through rice paddies, across dikes and drainage ditches and dirt trails, we look for the school where Speck, as a member of our advisory team, taught English to Vietnamese students. I was the advisory team leader, the district senior adviser— a dubious title at best.

To help locate the school, Speck pulls an album of 1971 photos from his loosely fitting civilian fatigue pants, and we scan the background mountains in the school photograph to get a general azimuth from Route 516 to the school. During the war, the road was mostly abandoned—unlike today with its chock-a-block roadside businesses selling everything from motorbikes to French pastries, snakes-in-a-jar that will cure most any illness and cold bottles of robust local beers.

We soon find the school, and as we enter the courtyard we are met by an attractive young woman who announces that she is the English teacher. Joining her is a clean-cut young Vietnamese man who says, in excellent English, that he is the physics teacher. After a tense back and forth exchange, they decide that we can talk to the students who are studying English. We greet about 75 students in a single classroom; girls seated on the left and boys on the right. When we tell them we taught English there in 1971, giggles float up from the young Vietnamese faces. To them, that was so long ago they weren’t even sure if their parents had been born yet. After a short talk by Speck, followed by robust cheers from both sides of the aisle, we get a signal from our interpreter traveling with us that something is up and we have to leave. The students give us another big cheer, as if we are the scoring team at a high school football game.

Walking out into the courtyard, we are greeted by a couple of stern-looking bullnecked Vietnamese men; they totally ignore the 100-watt smiles we flash at them.

The two men, local Communist officials, straight from central casting, tell us that we are not allowed to be in the school and that we must leave posthaste or be jailed. With little hesitation, we choose the former and resume our search for the battlefield. It is due south about 2,500 meters along Route 516 in the village of Tinh Phu.

We cross the Cau Dai Bridge, and Speck and I are still amazed by the roadsides jam-packed with building after building. So much has changed since that day in February 1971, when this area was largely deserted—except for the North Vietnamese Army unit occupying Tinh Phu and preparing to overrun the American compound at Nghia Hanh district headquarters.

As we draw closer to our old battleground, that distant day begins to materialize in the forefront of my mind. After remaining largely hidden for 37 years, it now all seems as if it were yesterday.

Early that Wednesday, February 24, 1971, some of us in Advisory Team 17 were sipping our morning coffee atop the sleeping area, which served as our mess hall, when suddenly bullets began cracking overhead. We had sent the 711 Regional Forces (RF) Company, all Montagnards, south along Route 516 to investigate the report of attacks on some of our out- posts. The Yards’ mission was to sweep that road south of the Cau Dai Bridge to determine if any enemy were there. We had reasoned that there might have been some Viet Cong guerrillas attempting to threaten or harass the local populace. We could not have been more wrong.

As soon as the 711 RF Company passed over the bridge, it came under enemy automatic weapons fire and we, at district headquarters to the north, were hearing the sounds of that initial firefight.

Shortly reports began flowing into the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), which had just been rebuilt after a rocket attack a few weeks earlier. (Two of the rockets hit the mess hall and destroyed the refrigerator, our sole source of cold beer. After such willful and wanton destruction, we vowed revenge.)

The 711th was in contact with an enemy unit slightly west of Route 516 and about 800 meters south of Cau Dai Bridge, and its American adviser was urgently requesting reinforcements and artillery fire support. Casualties from the firefight included one Montagnard killed and a couple of wounded, including the U.S. adviser. The adviser, who refused evacuation until later in the battle, was screaming for help—this was not just a few local guerrillas who decided to fire a couple of warning shots at the friendly forces. It was a North Vietnamese unit with automatic weapons, dug in and ready to fight. What were they doing in our back yard?

The first volley of friendly artillery fire that landed on the enemy gave the Montagnards the opportunity they needed. They overran the NVA outpost but not without a deadly fight, killing about six of the enemy and capturing one machine gun. Many in the regional forces, haunted by horrific memories from past defeats, were reluctant to close with the NVA. But such was not the case with the Yards. They hated the North Vietnamese and killed them whenever they had the chance.

It was time to go to the sound of the guns, and I hopped into my jeep with my M-16 and a load of ammo. My driver and I headed south toward the Cau Dai Bridge.

We crossed the bridge and we knew this was going to be a battle. Bullets whizzed in all directions, mostly coming from the south. The 711 Company, which now occupied the enemy position on the west of the highway, had begun to fire to the east into the NVA flank. Enemy units on the east side of 516 began firing in my general direction. I called back to headquarters to get everyone, except those manning the TOC, down there to help.

When I reached the Montagnard’s position on the west side of Highway 516, and saw the dead enemy bodies dressed in brown uniforms, classic pith helmet and web gear, it was clear that this was a regular NVA unit. What were they doing there at this time of day? Clearly, they weren’t looking for the local market—they were gunning for us, the 17th MACV Advisory Team. Luckily, we found them first—or rather, the Yards did.

Automatic weapons fire from the east side of the road enveloped those of us who remained on the west side. Using my portable radio, I called for gunships and artillery to pound the area directly across the road. After some delay and adjustments, the artillery began to hit the target. But it didn’t silence the fire because the enemy troops were in bunkers with overhead cover, protecting them from all but direct hits. It was going to take a coordinated effort of artillery, gunships and infantry to take down these well-prepared positions. What we had for infantry were two MATT teams of five Americans each, one Australian MATT team of five men, my radio operator and me—a total of 17 warriors, and not all of them were infantry fighters. The 711 RF Company’s Yards, the first to make contact with the North Vietnamese, were ready for the next phase. The 182 RF Company was on the way to the battle but moving slowly. The 122 Popular Forces platoon was securing the Cau Dai Bridge. Friendly forces totaled about 170 men, and it appeared there were approximately 100 North Vietnamese soldiers in dug-in positions across the highway. This was going to be a difficult attack.

According to military doctrine, to successfully attack an enemy that is well-entrenched, one must have at least a 3-to-1 combat power advantage. The more favorable the combat power ratio, the better the chance of success. On this day, that combat power ratio was not in our favor. Fortunately, artillery support and aerial gunships were available to help us out. They could turn the tide in our favor—we just had to get them working.

The time was 1000 hours. At Cau Dai Bridge, Lt. Col. Rex Perkins, the province senior military adviser, took a deep draw on his cigarette as he was briefed on the situation. I had pulled back from the forward outpost to the bridge, where we could analyze the field and the enemy. It was clear that to cross the highway with a ground attack into this NVA position would be suicidal, even with artillery support. Helicopter gunships were the answer.

Colonel Perkins requested that two Cobra gunships or one Cobra and a Light Observation Helicopter (LOH) be dispatched as soon as possible. I moved back to the forward location on the west side of the highway with the Montagnards to await the arrival of the aerial firepower. The plan was necessarily simple. When the gunships came on the scene, we would use them to suppress the enemy fire while we crossed 300 meters of rice paddy, attacking into the enemy’s flank. The maneuver would have the 711 Company on the north flank and the 182 Company on the south flank as we pressed eastward. The American advisers would be fighting alongside their respective units.

We waited. Time passes ever so slowly during a lull in the fighting. The crack of bullets drops to an occasional smack. Then quiet. Finally, the whistle of artillery rounds overhead broke the tense silence before they exploded, hurling great geysers of mud and water into the air. Parts of trees and bushes and foliage that had been camouflage were tossed about like splintered matchsticks. Bursting artillery rounds are a sight to behold—and something to be greatly feared. A single, short round can bring disaster to a friendly unit, worse than any enemy.

Still we waited for the gunships. To our urgent radio requests came the same reply, “They’re on the way—will be there shortly.”

We were told that a company of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) armored personnel carriers (APCs), the 2nd Battalion, 4th ARVN Regiment, was crossing the Cau Dai Bridge and would soon be prepared to attack south into the wood line. We could hear the screeching of their tracks in the distance. The U.S. adviser to the ARVN called on our command net to let us know that they would be ready to roll any minute to attack enemy units in the village of Tinh Phu on the east side of Route 516.

Still, not a single helicopter in sight or within earshot.

Self doubt creeps in during lulls like this. Am I doing the right thing? Is this attack really worth the risk? Have I underestimated this enemy force? Why is it taking so long to get a couple of helicopters here? Who has priority? We are in close contact, why don’t we have priority? Who screwed up? Response time is critical; yet, no one seems to know why things take so long. The helicopter flight time from Duc Pho to the battle area was less than 10 minutes…so where the hell were they?

The enemy was silent. My mind continued to race. Could he be maneuvering to get away, or attempting to go around our flank? Or moving to a different defensive location while we sat on our dead butts waiting for gunship support? Or worse, could this be a trap?

Finally at noon, nearly two hours after requested, the smack, smack of rotor blades signaled the arrival of a Cobra gunship and its LOH companion. We were more than ready to begin the attack. I directed the pilots to fire into the wood line right in front of the enemy’s location. The LOH rolled in, followed by the Cobra. Antiaircraft fire rattled from the NVA position, green tracers arching high into the sky. Rockets streaked down from the Cobra toward the enemy’s machine gun. Whoosh! Boom! Whoosh! Boom! The machine gun kept chattering away. Then the Cobra’s minigun fired hundreds of rounds into the enemy’s position. The green tracers stopped, and it was silent except for the whop, whop, whop of rotors and the occasional bursts of minigun fire.

We began moving a few meters at a time. The left flank advanced while we on the right laid down fire into the wood line. Then we advanced while they fired. Another enemy machine gun opened up, firing directly over us. Taking cover behind a rice paddy dike, we barely missed the bullets that passed inches away. The water was cold, but the mud offered safety.

I yelled to the U.S. adviser: “Yards to the front! Get them moving!”

When the Yards rushed forward, Crack! Crack! Crack! came that enemy gun. Several of us threw hand grenades. The explosions were muffled by the dirt and foliage hiding the enemy position. Then it stopped. Had the enemy withdrawn? Was he waiting for someone to expose himself? Was he wounded? Dead?

The Montagnards swarmed over the position and found a dead gunner; a grenade had done its job. The left flank of the enemy was now in our hands, but the center had yet to be taken. The largest enemy force remained only 100 or so meters to our front. Our position seemed precarious against an enemy counterattack. We had to wait for the APCs’ attack from the north. If the APCs got moving, they would overrun the enemy center and all would be OK. But we were getting low on ammo and were nearly out of water.

Then the worst happened. The captain of the Australian MATT was hit by enemy shrapnel that penetrated his spleen and caused massive bleeding. The medic, Sergeant Franz Summers, rushed over to stem the blood loss, and I called for Dustoff. I prayed it wouldn’t take as long as it did to get the gunships. I screamed “Urgent, urgent, urgent!” into the radio mike. Thankfully, I got an immediate response, “Dustoff is on the way!” I signaled Doc that help was enroute. The sound of approaching rotor blades was reassuring. Under the rush of rotor wash, we loaded the Aussie aboard as fire from the ARVN APCs kept the enemy fire at bay.

First Lieutenant John Kundel and I moved near a large palm tree about 20 meters inside the enemy position, staying low to avoid bullets that seemed to come from everywhere. Suddenly, the ARVN APCs began firing .50-caliber machine guns directly over our heads—chipping out chunks of the palm tree as big as our fists. Kundel and I tried to disappear beneath our helmets. I radioed the U.S. adviser that his “fucking unit [was] shooting us up with .50- caliber machine guns!” and to cease fire immediately and shift his fires to the east away from our location.

After a short delay, the .50-caliber fusillade finally stopped, and we pulled back across the rice paddy to get out of the line of any more friendly fire and to regroup on the west side of Route 516. This would allow the APC unit to attack to the south while the 711 Montagnards and 182 RF Company held the western flank. Once the APC attack got rolling, we could easily re-cross the rice paddy to enter the wood line again. And we could get water and ammo.

Specialist Speck braved Highway 516 in a jeep with bullets cracking overhead, bringing water and ammunition and first-aid packets. With refilled canteens and reloaded magazines, we prepared to move back across the rice paddy into the position in the woods that we had captured earlier. This time, with no enemy fire, the move was easy. But the .50-cals and 106mm recoilless rifles from the APCs were wreaking havoc on the woods to our front. So we advanced about 25 meters and reluctantly held that position, awaiting the armored charge from the ARVN APCs.

Then the North Vietnamese fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that exploded not far from an APC, doing little damage other than scaring the ARVN. That round took the guts from them, and the APCs literally flew through the rice paddy, slinging chunks of mud high into the air as they raced back to the safety of the previous position where they could fire at the woods from a distance safe from the RPGs. The remaining 16 Americans and Aussies and the 711 RF Company were left holding the western end of the enemy position. No attack on the enemy center had materialized.

Apparently, the U.S. military concept of rolling into battle using the armored personnel carrier as a fighting vehicle was lost on our allies. The Vietnamese concept appeared to be to save the APC for parades and military ceremonies.

After my deluge of four-letter words and threats to the APC unit’s American advisers, the advisers convinced their Vietnamese counterparts to resume the attack to where they had been more than an hour earlier. There was no return enemy fire.

By this time, the enemy reasoned that he was facing a superior force—albeit a somewhat cowardly one—and thus his best option was to follow Mao Tse-Tung’s advice: Disappear to fight another day. He did and we lost a golden opportunity to destroy an NVA battalion before it attacked us. The failure of the ARVN fighting forces to close with the enemy allowed the North Vietnamese to fade away into their mountain retreat. In war, delay is often as bad as no action at all. As General George S. Patton is alleged to have said, “A bad plan executed violently is better than a good plan executed slowly.”

Nevertheless, the results that day were favorable to the friendly side in spite of five killed and nine wounded. We counted 47 North Vietnamese bodies in the battle area, many of them killed by gunships and artillery. We also captured 15 AK-47s, two M-16s, four RPG-7 grenade launchers, two anti-aircraft machine guns and one light machine gun.

One enemy prisoner confirmed that this was the first taste of combat for the 5th NVA Battalion, 21st NVA Regiment, and that its mission had been to attack the district headquarters that night. We had foiled what could have been a devastating surprise strike.

Now 37 years after this battle, I ruminate over the good and the bad. As we retrace our path back toward Quang Ngai, in search of a cocktail on the roof garden of the Central Hotel, I wonder, was it all worth it? All the sacrifice and bloodshed and heartbreak causing rips in the fabric of the American society. Could it have been done differently? These remain hard questions.

But what we do know is that the tactics we practiced successfully as advisers at Quang Ngai are as applicable today in the deserts of Iraq, or in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, as they were in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Our success there, dramatized by the enemy’s effort to destroy us, is the harbinger of winning in today’s wars.


Ben G. Crosby served in the 82nd Airborne, 1st Cavalry, 25th Infantry and 101st Air Assault. He served as Operations Officer for 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry in Vietnam. He commanded battalions in the 101st and in Europe. Crosby was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and four Bronze Star Medals.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.