One of the greatest rescue operations of the war was largely ignored until President Obama recognized it with a Presidential Unit Citation nearly 40 years later.
In 1970, Washington’s strategy for South Vietnam was expressed in one awkward word:“Vietnamization.” There would be a gradual U.S. withdrawal, a strengthening of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and a reduction of the North Vietnamese Army by incessant offensive operations using overwhelming American mobility and fire- power. Utilizing the 1st Cavalry Division’s huge rotary-wing fleet, the United States deployed its airmobile units near the Cambodian border in hopes of driving the enemy out of South Vietnam. NVA and Viet Cong troops, however, continued to use the border and its neutrality for frequent attacks and as sanctuary from ground assaults.
In late March, two powerful U.S. Army units moved into an area near the Cambodian border, eagerly looking to engage the NVA. The 11th Armored Cavalry, the famed Blackhorse Regiment, with its tanks and armored cavalry assault vehicles (ACAVs), furnished superior firepower and ground maneuverability. And the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) helicopters provided rapid air mobility for its foot soldiers. On March 26, elements of both units joined in a battle to rescue beleaguered troops trapped by the NVA. Despite being outnumbered, the cavalry troops snatched a bloody victory from the jaws of defeat. But their battle never had a name, like Tet or Hue or Khe Sanh, and it never made the papers. Rather, it went unnoticed in an agonizing period of the Vietnam War marred by a drumbeat of news stories about U.S. military indiscipline and deteriorating morale.
The engagement played out in a 1,000-square-mile flat patch of uninhabited, heavily forested wilderness alternating with islands of waist- to chest-high grassland. In parts of the forested areas, soldiers might see triple canopies overhead with towering old-growth hardwoods shading smaller 30- to 40-foot trees above a tangled undergrowth of vines and bamboo stands. Troops could be within 20 feet of an NVA company without knowing it. Several of these forested patches existed within a dreaded zone known as “Dog’s Head,” named for the zone’s shape along its stretch of the international border.
There, on March 21, Captain George Hobson’s Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, marched out of the 1st Cavalry Division fire support base and headed north, searching for the North Vietnamese 272nd Regiment, a combat-proven unit thought to be near the Cambodian border. Anticipating deadly enemy contact, Hobson’s cavalrymen, about 90, advanced quietly in the jungle. They traveled through dense vegetation in humid 100-degree heat, with little sleep at night. Hobson, a 27-year-old West Virginian, had been in the Army since 1965, qualifying for and serving with Special Forces. He had just completed a yearlong advisory assignment with an ARVN combat unit.
After the troopers had been on the move for three days, the point man stepped onto a well-used, well-concealed trail. Hobson directed his men to position several tripwire-triggered Claymore mines on the path. The company then silently settled into a night defense position (NDP).
At 2 a.m. on the 25th, one of the Claymore mines exploded, killing a North Vietnamese officer. When his body was discovered at dawn, they found he was carrying maps and drawings of the 1st Cavalry fire support base. Hobson called his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Michael Conrad, who directed him to continue his reconnaissance northward. By midafternoon, Hobson’s troops passed an area where small trees had been felled, and they spotted a snare-type animal trap. The men suspected they were approaching some sort of installation. After an uneventful night, Charlie Company resumed its cautious reconnaissance. For many troopers, this day, March 26, would prove to be the most unforgettable of their lives.
Another unit under Colonel Conrad’s command was resuming its own search for the NVA 272nd Regiment that morning, about 2½ miles away from Charlie Company. Led by Captain John Poindexter, Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and its companion infantry company had chosen an open patch of grassland to establish their NDP. Poindexter, a tall, lanky Texan, was an armor officer, a qualified parachutist and Ranger with a college degree from the University of Arkansas. His men regarded him as a smart, thoughtful and tough but fair commander.
Since early February, Alpha Troop, with its 100 soldiers, 20 Sheridan light tanks and up-gunned and up-armored M113 ACAVs, had been“on loan,”temporarily attached to the 1st Cavalry Division and paired with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry, commanded by Captain Ray Armer. Poindexter, senior to Armer, was in charge. This unusual arrangement was an experiment to provide more combat strength for better searching and fighting in dense, forested areas—favorite NVA lairs— where the terrain limited the use of helicopters. Infantrymen rode atop tanks and armored personnel carriers for the initial penetration into wooded areas, and then dismounted to lead, follow or accompany the combat vehicles when enemy contact was imminent. Collectively, the two units formed Alpha Team.
A little before noon on the 26th, a deafening fusillade opened up on Charlie Company. Two soldiers immediately went down, one with a fatal bullet wound in the forehead, another with a life-threatening severed femoral artery. Seemingly out of nowhere, three NVA soldiers rose from a cleverly concealed bunker, and the Americans promptly mowed them down. Hobson and his platoon leaders directed return fire while they moved the men into a rough circular formation and established a casualty collection point. The captain reported his situation to the battalion commander. At the fire support base, Colonel Conrad got his helicopter airborne, intent on bringing overwhelming firepower—air and artillery—to the company’s aid.
Outnumbered by more than 4-to-1, Charlie Company was surrounded and taking casualties from NVA weapons that included AK-47s and bunkered heavy machine guns. Hobson’s men saw their opponents dashing in the dense vegetation to secure the ground behind them. As soon as Conrad’s helicopter arrived overhead, it came under NVA fire from multiple positions and was forced to back off. Hobson tossed colored smoke grenades to mark his position, but because of the canopy and the effective NVA bunker camouflage, the battalion commander had difficulty in determining the extent of Hobson’s perimeter and the locations of the NVA positions. (Later analysis indicated the company had penetrated a large base complex manned by an estimated 400 NVA soldiers with numerous defensive bunkers.)
After an hour of fighting, both sides slowed their fire, switching to single, aimed shots. Hobson considered his options: He was pinned down on three sides; he couldn’t retreat; the NVA were already occupying his rear. He would have to bring out the wounded, and that couldn’t be done without exposing them to enemy fire. He couldn’t attack forward—they would be easy targets for NVA machine gunners in bunkers. There was no suitable place for a helicopter landing zone. The thick vegetation, well-concealed enemy positions and the proximity of the opposing forces negated his tactical edge: plentiful and accurate firepower. Helicopters attempting to bring the company water and ammunition had been driven off by NVA fire. Hobson decided Charlie Company would have to fight it out where it was.
Captain Poindexter heard the firing when Hobson’s fight began and monitored the battalion radio net. Captain Armer, his infantry company commander, and Jerry Holloman, the A Troop first sergeant, watched helicopter gunships and Air Force F-4 Phantom jets trying to make strafing and bomb runs. Then they heard Hobson tell Conrad: “I’m down to the last of the smoke and only have a few magazines per man….About 30 casualties now.”
Armer, 31, who had been with Alpha Company for more than a year, looked at Poindexter and Holloman and asked, “What are we going to do?” The three agreed it would take several hours of “jungle busting”for the tanks and ACAVs to make it to Hobson’s company. Poindexter’s troops were exhausted from weeks in the field. With just seven hours until nightfall, they could be facing a nighttime withdrawal. Poindexter pondered the odds. It was a long shot. “If I was with those guys,” said Armer, “I’d sure want somebody to try to get me out.” Poindexter looked up and said, “Saddle up.”
At about 1 p.m., 212 of Alpha Team’s soldiers prepared to rescue Charlie Company. Poindexter informed Conrad that he was heading out to help. He left two squads and one mortar vehicle with 1st Sgt. Holloman at the NDP, and formed two tankled columns, followed by a platoon in the rear to maneuver in case of an ambush en route. All together, the force consisted of five Sheridan tanks, 14 ACAVs and Armer’s 100 or so infantrymen atop the vehicles. The formation plunged into the forest and began jungle busting through slapping branches, angry insects, heat and dust.
For 2½ miles the Blackhorse Regiment steered its tanks through the jungle.The lead Sheridans,powered by supercharged diesel engines, created pathways, avoiding large trees and pushing down or running over smaller trees, brush, bamboo, vines and tall grasses. Sometimes the brush was so thick that drivers could barely see vehicles in front of them. Every 30 minutes or so, a following tank took the lead to prevent the lead Sheridan from overheating.
Meanwhile, at Charlie Company, Hobson’s men received a morale-boosting visit from the 1st Cav’s assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. George Casey. Piloting his own helicopter, the general braved NVA gunfire to hover over Company C’s position while his aircrew kicked out ammunition, smoke grenades and water cans. The men on the ground heard bullets strike Casey’s helicopter. Finishing the drop, the general turned the now smoking helicopter back to the fire support base. In another source of hope for the men, Spc. 4 Rick Hokenson, a sniper from Minnesota, used his 7.62mm M-14 rifle and powerful scope to busily pick off any hapless NVA soldier who made the mistake of exposing a face or body part.
Judging from the sounds of gunfire at 4 p.m., Poindexter, amazed that Alpha Team had not been ambushed in the last three hours, knew he was approaching Hobson’s men. He radioed Conrad: “I’m putting out smoke on my point. Can you give me a spot relative to Racer [Hobson]?” Moments later, the battalion commander replied: “Make a half-turn to your left. Come around to a heading of 330.You’ve got 200 meters to go.”
Conrad had directed Alpha Team to a relatively quiet sector of Charlie Company’s besieged perimeter, and soon Poindexter barreled up to Hobson’s command post. They arrived with a suddenness that surprised both sides, according to the Alpha Team commander. All of his vehicles except one tank, which succumbed to engine overheating, had made the trip. The troop scrambled to come on line.
Poindexter assessed the situation, concerned about the few hours of daylight left. Hobson had two men dead and about 40 wounded—one-half of his company—and he urgently needed to get the wounded to a medical facility.
Poindexter decided on a bold course of action. He would form Alpha Team into an assault line, with Armer’s infantrymen behind the vehicles. He would attack the NVA’s strongest sector, overrun and destroy bunkers and kill as many enemy soldiers as possible—just a brutal shot straight ahead. Meanwhile, Hobson would protect his wounded with his remaining able-bodied men and await Alpha Team’s return. Then, the wounded and the dead would be placed inside the combat vehicles, all foot soldiers would remount the vehicle decks and the convoy would return to the NDP in darkness. Hopefully, the attack would cripple any NVA resistance to the escape.
Amid desultory firing by both sides, Poindexter put his vehicles and infantrymen in position and called in an airstrike by Phantom jets and Cobra gunships. At 5 p.m., the cavalry commander radioed,“Commence firing!”
Twenty-four 7.62mm M60 and 16 .50-caliber M2 machine guns joined four tanks with 152mm cannons in belching a huge volume of fire into the visible bunkers and surrounding jungle. The tanks fired either high-explosive or canister rounds. Each of the latter contained 10,000 nail-like steel flechettes that could kill dozens of exposed enemy soldiers and literally blow away masses of jungle vegetation—including camouflage that concealed bunkers.
The deafening barrage temporarily silenced almost all enemy firing. The NVA were dug in, and Poindexter ordered an advance. The troop vehicles slowly moved forward, firing at the exposed bunkers and muzzle flashes spotted in the surrounding jungle. NVA firing resumed with RPGs coming from the jungle—each followed by a telltale trail of smoke that marked the firer’s position.
Poindexter ordered a cease-fire to determine his losses.Armer’s infantrymen moved four wounded Alpha troopers to the casualty collection point. The vehicle line resumed the advance, firing and taking fire. A short time later, the Alpha Team commander spotted Armer directing his men’s rifle fire and grenades against bypassed bunkers. Poindexter yelled, “How’s it look to you?”
“No sweat,” Armer yelled back. “Most of their stuff is high now. We’re getting to them!”
After an hour of fighting, Alpha Team’s attack had not progressed much, but it had hurt the enemy badly. It was largely a toe-to-toe slugfest, and the Americans were holding their own. Poindexter decided to continue trading fire with the NVA to increase the enemy casualties before withdrawing to collect Company C and bring all troops back to the NDP.
Twenty minutes later, an NVA RPG hit the tank next to Poindexter’s command vehicle, killing the tank commander and knocking Poindexter unconscious. The shower of metal fragments wounded 12 others. The Alpha commander suffered serious blood loss and a broken arm. After he came to and was patched up, Poindexter noted the waning daylight and directed Alpha Team to begin slowly backing up while continuing to fire at available targets. NVA fire dropped off appreciably.
Rejoining Charlie Company, Alpha quickly made preparations for the return trip. Its mechanics assessed the vehicles and made hasty repairs. One tank and one ACAV were judged unsalvageable, and were stripped of anything useful. A third vehicle was rigged for towing. Near sunset, Poindexter ordered all wounded and dead placed in the vehicles and all able infantrymen to mount vehicle decks.
The return to the NDP began around 7:30, with Conrad overhead to direct airstrikes if necessary. In the gathering darkness, visibility was enhanced by illumination para-flares fired from the 4.2-inch mortar vehicle that had been left at the NDP. Around 8:30, the leading vehicles of the column began arriving at the NDP. There had been virtually no interference from the enemy during the withdrawal. Poindexter’s gutsy decision to attack the NVA before attempting withdrawal had been the right call.
The rescue of Charlie Company was an unqualified success. Accounts of the action and its human costs vary. Total U.S. ground strength was about 290. U.S. casualties were estimated at three killed and 90 wounded. A conservative estimate of the well dug-in NVA force was between 400 and 600 men. A search of the abandoned battlefield conducted two days after the action found 80 fresh, shallow graves of NVA 272nd Regiment soldiers.
Unfortunately, the story of this skillful, daring rescue went largely unnoticed for four decades, until Oct. 20, 2009, when President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Unit Citation to Alpha Troop at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. More than 80 members of the troop attended, as well as many from Charlie Company. It was a long-overdue recognition for the brave troopers.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.