Officially classified as an operation with ‘indifferent’ results, Elk Canyon I was a bloody and costly trial by combat for one American artillery battery.
Andrew Grey, a young Native American cannoneer, climbed aboard the CH-47 chopper at 1420 hours on July 12, 1970, and mentally prepared for a to- tally unexpected move. Battery A, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery (1-82 FA) was being airlifted to Kham Duc airfield, some 18 miles away from the Laotian border, a place that had not seen a U.S. military presence since it was overrun by the NVA and hastily evacuated two years and two months earlier—to the day. Now, Kham Duc was a key objective in a mission, dubbed Operation Elk Canyon I, to strike deep within the enemy-controlled territory.
Few of the artillerymen of A Battery, part of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division (23 ID), had any recent experience with an airlift of this sort. Compounding the apprehension felt by Spc. 4 Grey and his comrades was the fact that the offensive operation came as a total surprise. With Vietnamization well underway and American troops being withdrawn, an assault by U.S. forces at Kham Duc seemed extraordinary indeed. And, as the 1-82 lifted off from the Tam Ky airstrip, Grey couldn’t help but recall what he had been told about Kham Duc when he first arrived at the Americal’s reception center seven months earlier: “We would never have to worry about that place anymore.”
When the men of the 1-82 flew over Kham Duc that afternoon, they could see the craters from the B-52 strikes and the abandoned wreckage of aircraft, vehicles and artillery still strewn about the airstrip, eerie remnants of the earlier ill-fated U.S. occupation there. The harried evacuation on May 12, 1968, came under an intense hail of mortars from the advancing NVA, as nearly 1,500 South Vietnamese and U.S. troops struggled to hold on to the U.S. Special Forces camp and airfield. First established as a South Vietnamese regimental frontier post and used by Special Forces beginning in September 1963, by May 1968 more than 1,000 Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) troops were stationed there—along with their families and advisers from the 5th Special Forces Group. The evacuation devolved into near panic as desperate civilians and troops mobbed the runway to scramble aboard Chinooks, C-130s and C-123s, which were struggling through heavy anti-aircraft fire. One C-130 was shot down as it took off, killing all on board, and another was destroyed by enemy fire while it was on the airstrip. Several helicopters were hit and exploded. One of the Chinooks crashed on the runway and had to be bulldozed to the side to keep the airstrip open. The last of the camp’s defenders was finally rescued just minutes before NVA riflemen overran the airfield. Out of the more than 1,500 Americans and South Vietnamese at Kham Duc that day, 259 were killed. Left behind, among the burning wreckage of two transports and several choppers and artillery pieces, were a number of fallen and missing soldiers. With the defeat at Kham Duc in 1968, which came just two days after its patrol base at Ngok Tavak fell to the NVA, the United States had lost its last two border surveillance camps in I Corps, leaving the region vulnerable to further Communist infiltration from Laos.
Now, in 1970, the war was in a different phase, and the U.S. mission was to try to destabilize the enemy and give the ARVN a chance to survive. In May and June, during the incursion into Cambodia, raids had destroyed NVA base areas, netted 23,000 enemy weapons, 2,500 mortars, machine guns and artillery pieces, 16.7 million rounds of small-arms ammunition and 7,000 tons of rice. American intelligence now believed that the NVA and VC were using Kham Duc to facilitate attacks from Laos against the populated coastal areas. The U.S. forces were to retake the Kham Duc airfield and use it as a base for search and destroy operations to neutralize NVA/VC in the area.
Elk Canyon I started at 0730 hours when the ARVN 1st Battalion, 6th Regiment, was airlifted to LZ Kala, a clearing that had been blasted out of the jungle by U.S. Air Force bombers just northeast of Kham Duc. Its mission was to secure the high ground overlooking the airfield and camp. The LZ was cold when the choppers touched down, but as soon as the infantrymen started to disperse on foot to the surrounding hilltops they began taking mortar and small-arms fire. With the help of U.S. airstrikes, however, they quickly overcame this resistance and secured the high ground.
Additional U.S. forces were soon airlifted in, including the same infantry unit that had helped to defend the airfield and camp during the siege two years earlier: the 23 ID’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry (2-1), 196th Light Infantry Brigade. The 2nd Battalion’s A and D companies, along with a squad of engineers, a .50-caliber machine gun crew and a single 81mm mortar crew arrived on one of the airlifts. In addition, a forward operational command group, the 2-1’s Reconnaissance Platoon, the mortar sections from the 2-1’s E Company and more attached engineers were inserted. When Delta Company, 2-1, landed northeast of the airfield, it took several grenade rounds that wounded some of the troops, but U.S. gunships flying cover out of Chu Lai had soon silenced the enemy.
On the last airlift with Grey’s platoon from A Battery, were the 2-1’s B and C companies, and another supporting artillery unit: B Battery, 1st Battalion, 14th Field Artillery (1-14 FA). Companies B and C took up defensive positions to form the southern end of the security perimeter around the airstrip. Both the 1-82 FA and the 1-14 FA emplaced their guns on the southeast side of the airfield, close to each other but separated by an open space. Four 105mm howitzers from B/1-14 were also deployed along with three of A/1-82’s 155mm towed howitzers. Within 20 minutes of arrival, the two batteries were set up and ready to fire.
Other than the grenades that had been launched at Delta and the friendly fire laid down at the LZs by the slicks’ door gunners, there was hardly another shot fired or any sign of a substantial NVA/VC presence at the U.S. insertion sites. “It was a spooky place that had bones all over and destroyed 105mm howitzers and aircraft,” said Grey. From the minute they arrived, he and his battery mates were uneasy, feeling restless and on edge, “like we were being watched all the time,” Grey recalled.
By nightfall, all the planned patrol bases for the infantry units were secured, the supporting artillery was in place and the logistics build-up initiated. With the ARVN conducting sweeps in the surrounding hillsides and blocking any NVA movement to or from Laos, the Americans could begin to establish a ring of outpost positions around the airstrip. A staging area for refueling and rearming gunships was set up along the airstrip immediately to the south of the artillery area. Just south of that, the mortars and the Recon Platoon established their perimeter. More than 400 booby traps were found and destroyed as engineers worked to fill gaping bomb craters on the airstrip. In just four days—one day ahead of schedule—the airfield was ready to accept C-123 and C-130s.
While the engineers toiled, infantry and support units spent the first few days consolidating security in the area. While they saw an occasional solitary NVA and fired random shots, overall there was little enemy contact in the immediate area of the airstrip. Additional ARVN units were inserted into several LZs west of the initial landing area and closer to Laos to reinforce the western border.
During the first weeks of the operation, both artillery batteries answered calls from the infantry for supporting fire and worked on their perimeter, following the artillery’s long-standing axiom of “always improve your position.” They salvaged as much material as they could from the 1968 battlefield and had more material airlifted in, but the best they could manage was a few strands of protective wire with a line of makeshift bunkers behind it. The bunkers were simply shallow holes in the ground with parapets of dirt-filled ammo boxes or sandbags. Corrugated metal culvert sections turned upside down and covered with sandbags formed the overhead cover.
The batteries’ fire missions were mainly called in on suspected NVA locations or enemy logistics sites rather than “troops-in-contact” missions. One fire mission was targeted on a convoy of elephants that was hauling supplies for the NVA.
As search activities increased and spread out in July, there was more enemy contact, mostly from probes and indirect fire attacks coming from the area south and southeast of the airfield along a small stream called the Dak Mi. The troops suspected that the NVA had begun aggressive reconnaissance.
On July 19, an eight-man NVA patrol was spotted near the airfield, between the artillery perimeter and the 2-1 Infantry’s mortar position. To boost search and recon efforts, four long-range reconnaissance patrol (LRRP) teams from G Company, 75th Infantry, were inserted. The next night and again on July 23, all of the units around the airfield reported movement outside their perimeters. All of 1-2’s companies, recon elements and the LRRP teams increased their close-in patrols and the use of sensors to detect movement. Patrols by Alpha Company discovered an M16 and ammunition hidden under some brush on July 25. Two days later, Charlie Company’s 2nd Platoon went out on a sensor response mission and came under small-arms fire. Then on August 4, the Recon Platoon got involved in a sharp but short firefight and killed two NVA. It also managed to destroy a newly dug enemy firing pit and seize an 82mm mortar, a rifle and demolitions.
In the early morning darkness of August 5, Spc. 4 Grey was on guard duty with a Pfc Terry in a bunker on A Battery’s perimeter when they began receiving small-arms and mortar fire at 0415 hours. “We’re being hit!” cried Terry as mortar rounds exploded all around them. Minutes later Company A and the Recon Platoon to the north and south of the artillery position also began to take mortar rounds, preventing them from supporting the artillery.
Grey and others along the perimeter began to spray the perimeter wire with their M-60s and M-16s as soon as the mortar fire started. Along the wide gap between Grey’s position and the guard bunker next to him, manned by Spc. 4 Robert Velasquez and Pfc David Malone, NVA sapper teams began to work their way through the wire barriers. In seconds, a grenade hit Velasquez and then a satchel charge thrown from in front of the bunker exploded in Velasquez’s face, causing him massive head wounds and blowing off a part of Malone’s ear.
After striking the guard bunker, one of the sappers found cover in a nearby half-finished bunker while the remaining dozen or so scrambled toward a gun pit commanded by Sergeant Mike Ruibal.
Bill Chace, a private first class in Ruibal’s section nicknamed “Gramps” because he was older than the average soldier, had just drifted off to sleep in a small makeshift bunker in the gun pit about 20 feet from the artillery piece when “all hell broke loose,” Chace recalled. “I heard someone in the bunker behind me outside the gun pit yelling ‘Gooks in the perimeter wire!’ ” Grabbing his M-16, Chace heard a burst of automatic weapons fire from behind him and several explosions coming from his left, and he tried to crawl out of his bunker in the gun pit.
Sergeant Ruibal and Randy Fleetwood, the section gunner, were in their bunker near Chace when Fleetwood spotted at least four sappers crawling toward them. Fleetwood was just about to open fire on them when “a blackened arm appeared and threw a satchel charge” into the gun pit where Chace’s bunker was.
“I took about two crawls on my hands and knees on my way out of the bunker, when my bunker and duffel bag blew up,” said Chace, “sending me the rest of the way out.” Shaking off the numbness in his body and the ringing in his ears, Chace then grabbed his weapon and crawled to the entrance of the gun pit to fend off the sappers.
Sergeant Ruibal saw the satchel charge being thrown into the gun pit, and he stood up on top of his bunker to try to shoot the sapper who threw it. While he was firing, the sapper in the half-built bunker shot Ruibal several times with his AK-47. Chace could hear someone moaning close by, but it wasn’t until daylight that he learned it was Ruibal, who had taken nine AK rounds to his abdomen and legs.
Just then, several illumination flares went up and Chace could see “about half a dozen grayish-black stick figures” nearby. It was as if “they knew exactly where we were,” said Chace. He fired several quick bursts, and then other defenders around him started firing. “As the flares faded out, I saw several sappers drop,” he said. More flares shot up from Chace’s right as he was surrounded by the blasts of small-arms and mortar fire.
Meanwhile, Fleetwood, wounded and stunned from the explosion of the satchel charge in the gun pit, made his way to a nearby bunker where Grey was firing toward the perimeter wire. Because his M-16 had been damaged, Fleetwood grabbed one from a soldier who was using an M-79 grenade launcher and began firing.
In the nearby darkness, Monte Forrest, Daniel Hankins, Bob McFee, Tony Torres, John Spoon and many other A Battery soldiers struggled to repulse the attack. One of the battery’s cooks, Lawrence Carreras, fired hand flares from the mess area and from a second gun pit to help illuminate the area. The lead sappers, armed with AK-47s, RPGs and hand grenades, worked their way over to the gun pit and blasted it, injuring Carreras and killing Forrest. Though wounded, Carreras managed to fire his M-16 and kill the sapper in the half-finished bunker who had wounded Ruibal.
As the sappers moved deeper into the battery’s position in the direction of the airstrip, they approached the medic’s bunker. In the open nearby was the battery’s medic, Dave Denna. As he was treating a wounded comrade, one of the sappers strode up to Denna, shooting him in the head and killing him instantly.
Meanwhile, the 155mm howitzer in the third gun position, the most northern of the three, was nearly destroyed when an RPG round or a satchel charge blew off the sight and its mount and damaged the breech.
The men of A Battery were not alone in the fight. The nearby 105mm howitzers of the 1-14 FA, just north of the 1-82, began firing deadly “Beehive” antipersonnel rounds. Grey and Chace recalled watching one sapper simply “disappear” as he was hit by a wave of flechettes from a Beehive, and another sapper shot out of a tree. As well as pounding suspected NVA mortar positions with high-explosive rounds, the 2-1’s 81mm mortars began firing illumination rounds. As the artificial light swept over the area, it forced several sappers to take cover under one of the battery’s 5-ton trucks near the southernmost gun pit.
Dave Bewley, serving in a counter-mortar radar unit attached to the mortars of 2-1 Infantry, was a short distance away from A Battery. When the attack began, he had managed to get his radar unit on line and was able to direct counter-mortar fire against one tube. Then, yelling for his crew to take over, he grabbed the stretcher he had been using as a cot from the top of his unit’s bunker and ran to the A Battery area. After using his stretcher to help with the wounded, Bewley worked his way over to one of the gun pits, where he knew that some sappers had crawled under a 5-ton truck. He then passed his M-16 to an A Battery soldier and grabbed a flashlight, which he used to help illuminate and target the sappers. While Bewley trained the light beam on the sappers hiding under the truck, several of the artillerymen opened up with their M-16s and M-60s, killing all of them.
At sunup the next morning, A Battery found 14 dead sappers inside the perimeter. A sweep by the infantry outside the wire revealed eight more bodies along with a number of packs, weapons and ammunition, including three RPG launchers, 50 grenades, 200 pounds of PETN high explosives and two AK-47s.
Bob Forester spent most of the night of the attack helping to medevac the wounded and dispose of the NVA. He wore sandbags over his hands in place of gloves as he and others removed the bodies of the sappers and placed them in an old bomb crater for burial.
Bewley and others helped to load Velasquez aboard the Dustoff chopper, but Velasquez died shortly afterward. Following daybreak, Bewley returned to his radar site and found the two soldiers he had left to operate the unit. They had refused to come out of their bunker during the attack, too frightened to fight.
It was only when Chace went to the aid station after sunrise that he realized he had shrapnel wounds in the back of one leg and in his back and buttocks, as well as a sprained knee. He was one of the last to be medevaced. Malone and Carreras were treated for their injuries and quickly recovered. Fleetwood took over as the acting gun chief, temporarily replacing the injured Sergeant Ruibal, until the battery returned to its home at Fire Base Fat City, south of Tam Ky.
Andrew Grey’s morning after the attack was spent cleaning up the guard bunker where his buddy Velasquez had been hit. Nothing could compare to the anguish he now felt, finding the bodies of some of his closest friends and comrades and washing away their blood. As he did his grim work, he felt the anger rising. “I thought about avenging Monte Forrest and Robert Velasquez’s deaths,” Grey said. “I wanted at least 10 NVA killed for each of them.”
Operation Elk Canyon I ended 21 days later on August 26. Alpha Battery continued to provide fire support until the end of the operation, when it moved to LZ Judy, and its artillery fire was credited with 16 NVA killed. The overall results of the operation were described in one official report as “indifferent.” Sixty-six NVA had been killed in the operation, and one was captured. A disappointing amount of weapons and supplies were captured, including a large number of bicycles. Five Americans died in the action.
For the GIs who were missing in action after the 1968 Kham Duc siege, the U.S. occupation during Operation Elk Canyon I allowed search and rescue teams to recover the remains of five of them.
For A Battery, 1-82 FA, caught in the sapper and mortar attack, August 5, 1970, yielded the battery’s worst single-event casualty total in its four-year deployment in Vietnam. Three of its artillerymen had been killed and 14 were wounded. As a result of this action, three members of A Battery received the Silver Star, nine were awarded the Bronze Star Medal with V Device and two received the Army Commendation Medal with V Device.
On August 26 came the final tragic act of Operation Elk Canyon—perhaps a fitting coda for the ill-fated place called Kham Duc. A CH-47, on the last lift transporting 25 infantrymen and two artillerymen out of the base to LZ Judy, was hit by enemy ground fire as it hovered, preparing to land. The chopper crashed just off the LZ, killing all 30 GIs on board and one on the ground, and injuring eight. Those dead and wounded were never included in Elk Canyon’s official casualty count.
Ronald Griffin served as a gun section chief with Battery A, 1-82nd Field Artillery. He writes from Oshkosh, Wisc. For additional reading see Vietnam Firebases 1965-73, by Randy E.M. Foster and Peter Dennis, and Vietnam Studies: Field Artillery, by David E. Ott.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.