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Fire Base Illingworth: The Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds

by Philip Keith, St. Martin’s Press, 2013

Shortly before midnight on the evening of March 31, 1970, ground surveillance radar detected movement in the tree line around an isolated American firebase northwest of Saigon. Two hours later, after a dizzyingly destructive preliminary bombardment, nearly 400 soldiers from the 9th VC/NVA Division stormed out of the tree line and dashed through the swirling dust toward the base. Fire Base Illingworth, the latest work of award-winning historian Philip Keith, recounts in gripping detail the savage struggle that followed.

Christened in honor of slain Pfc Jack Illingworth, a recent replacement who would earn a posthumous Silver Star for rescuing an injured comrade less than a week before, Fire Base Illingworth was established by the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, on March 17, 1970, astride a major NVA infiltration route near the Cambodian border. The decision to locate the base alongside an enemy supply route—on a flat plain surrounded by thick jungle, no less— was entirely by design.

Tired of chasing the enemy around Tay Ninh province, Brig. Gen. George W. Casey Sr., assistant commander of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), had proposed a strategy of establishing temporary firebases in locations the enemy could not afford to ignore. Casey hoped the new approach would lure the NVA out so that he could destroy them more efficiently with supporting arms. Major General Elvy B. Roberts, the division commander, apparently embraced the plan and endorsed its implementation.

Curiously, a disparate collection of infantry, artillery and armored cavalry was entrusted to defend Illingworth in the event of an attack. Decimated in an NVA bunker complex on March 26, Charlie Company, 2-8 Cavalry, had returned to the base on the 27th to get rest and refit. Thirty replacements joined the shattered company three days later, but even with the addition of the battalion recon platoon, crack troops the defenders could scarcely do without, the total infantry strength on hand on the evening of the 31st numbered from 85 to 90. Three separate artillery batteries and several inoperable tanks from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment rounded out the forces available to Lt. Col. Mike Conrad, commander of the 2-8 Cavalry and the officer ostensibly in charge of Illingworth. “None of these units had effectively worked with each other before,” wrote Keith, “and certainly not in any sort of cohesive or coordinated manner.”

An assault, long feared by Conrad, commenced at 0218 hours on the morning of April 1 as about 300 mortar, rocket and RPG rounds plastered the base. Immediately following the barrage, the jungle around Illingworth reverberated with the sound of bugles as hundreds of well-armed troops from the VC 272nd Main Force Regiment, commanded by Colonel Nguyen Tuong Lai, charged the dust-choked base.

Frightened, confused and now eyeball to eyeball with the enemy, the young cavalrymen dug in and resisted stubbornly. Bunkers and culverts along the berm erupted in gunfire, slowing the enemy advance. Frantic troopers grappled with the VC in desperate hand-to-hand combat. The battery of 105mm guns fired point-blank into the onrushing attackers in support of the hard-pressed grunts, while overhead circling gunships emptied their rockets and miniguns in the surrounding tree line as a modest force of some 215 effectives, with the help of supporting arms, took on the better part of a VC regiment. Numerous medals, including a Medal of Honor, were later awarded to commemorate the heroism displayed by the defenders of Illingworth that night.

Keith, drawing on scores of interviews with veterans of the battle, deftly incorporates the experiences of the defenders into a thoroughly engrossing narrative of the action in, around and above the base. Much of Fire Base Illingworth, in fact, reads like a rip-roaring shoot-’em-up, only with very real and tragic consequences for the combatants on both sides.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.