Sent to relieve the besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh, the 1st Cavalry faced a tough fight of its own at Landing Zone Wharton
In the opening week of April 1968, the sky over the northwestern corner of South Vietnam looked like someone had disturbed a beehive as swarms of U.S. Cavalry helicopters flitted about, marshaling troops, equipment and firepower to various landing zones. This was Operation Pegasus, one of the Vietnam War’s largest offensive campaigns, an attack on the enemy forces besieging a Marine base at Khe Sanh.
A letter home by Sgt. Doug McPhee, 4th Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, on April 8, 1968, described the conditions witnessed by troops of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) at the operation’s Landing Zone Wharton: “You probably know where the 1st Cav is now—the immediate vicinity of Khe Sahn—and it is really bad news. The NVA are as well equipped as we are—tanks, artillery, mortars, rockets. Everything but jets and helicopters. We got here on the 3rd and have been under every type of fire so far—with great success for the NVA. So far our battalion has had over 100 casualties…mostly from artillery.”
Landing Zones for Pegasus
For the first time in the war, all three brigades of the 1st Air Cav were concentrated against a determined enemy that had occupied most of the terrain outside of the Khe Sanh base since January. The stepping off point was a long clay-colored runway called Landing Zone Stud at Ca Lu. LZ Stud served as a major air terminal, communications center and supply depot during Operation Pegasus.
In the first week of April, hundreds of UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopters, C-7A Caribou airplanes, CH-47 Chinook helicopters, CH-54 Skycrane helicopters and other aircraft of all kinds ferried heavy equipment to several outlying landing zones. As many as 30 Hueys and Chinooks descended onto LZ Stud at any one time, according to people who were there. At least one Marine at Khe Sanh jokingly wondered if each Army private had his own helicopter.
Thousands of American soldiers in the 1st Air Cav and South Vietnamese troops in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam waited along LZ’s Stud’s runway for transport to landing zones elsewhere in what was called “Indian Country,” slang for the dangerous areas occupied by the enemy. In just under one week, more than 15,000 soldiers were deployed. Many war correspondents arrived to capture this move, including Larry Burrows of Life magazine, Terry Fincher with the Daily Express of London, Dang Van Phuoc of the Associated Press and Catherine Leroy, an independent French journalist.
Operation Pegasus had three primary goals: provide relief to the Marines at Khe Sanh; reopen Highway 9 to establish an overland supply route to Khe Sanh; and search for and destroy North Vietnamese Army units in the Khe Sanh area. The 1st Air Cav would do what it did better than anyone: Clear the enemy from the site of a planned hilltop landing zone by hitting it with murderous artillery fire and airstrikes. Then fly in skytroopers who leaped from Hueys onto the ground, where they set up landing zones used as drop-off points for search and destroy missions and sometimes as a base for artillery sites. The 1st Air Cav also deployed fast-response aerial teams to disrupt NVA troops who were, at that point, moving around in the daytime unmolested.
Over five days, seven landing zones were blasted open to support 1st Air Cav units and ARVN troops in Operation Pegasus. The 3rd Brigade was the first to assemble its troops, inserted at three landing zones (Mike, Cates and Thor) east of Khe Sanh, starting on April 1, 1968. The brigade was ordered to push west toward Khe Sanh along Highway 9 with Marine tank support and Army engineers.
The 2nd Brigade dropped troops onto LZ Wharton (also known as Tim, Timothy and Pat) and LZ Tom south of Khe Sanh on April 3.Those forces would act as a pincer to prevent the NVA from moving south.
The 1st Brigade and the ARVN’s 3rd Airborne Task Force, leapfrogging west along the Laotian border near Lang Vei on April 7, would land at LZ Snapper and LZ Snake to block retreating enemy forces and prevent NVA reinforcements from moving into the region. With Marines holding the high ground to the north, the NVA besiegers faced attacks from all directions. Heavy fighting was inevitable.
The Big Move
In late March 1968 the soldiers of the 1st Air Cav’s 2nd Brigade had been told to grab their gear and saddle up for an extended operation. Assaults were a well-rehearsed routine, but even seasoned grunts felt an uneasiness settling in as their Hueys lifted off to head north and west into Indian Country.
Meanwhile, the 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 30th Field Artillery Regiment, prepared their 105 mm and 155 mm howitzers, ammunition and other equipment for loading onto the underbelly slings of Chinooks and Skycranes that were on the way. Pvt. Fred Woodruff of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, recalled his thoughts sitting in a vibrating, open-sided helicopter on his way to the battlefield: “I checked my watch and realized that already an hour had passed and this was, by far, our longest move yet. . .We were most certainly heading north, and that was not a direction to be heading in Vietnam.”
On April 3, one day ahead of schedule, the 2nd Brigade under the leadership of Col. Joseph C. McDonough sent the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, to LZ Tom. The brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, and 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, were sent to LZ Wharton. Charlie Battery of the 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, and Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 30th Artillery, also went to Wharton.
LZ Wharton was well-situated to prevent NVA troops from heading south as they retreated from Khe Sanh. The innocuous-looking hill was 2½ miles southeast of the Khe Sanh base, and LZ Tom was 1 mile southeast of Wharton. Two miles to the northwest, near the village of Khe Sanh, was an old French fort garrisoned by a well-entrenched NVA battalion. The fort was a former French prison that once held Ho Chi Minh, his wife and a top North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
LZ Wharton had about 1,000 U.S. troops, a battery of 155 mm howitzers, a battery of 105 mm howitzers, access to a fast-response scout team, support from artillery units aboard Hueys armed with rockets, and the assistance of scouts in the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry Regiment. LZ Tom could provide an additional 500 men and several 105 mm howitzers. But 1,500 soldiers of the 66th NVA Regiment were also in the area, straddling Highway 9 and occupying an elaborate system of underground bunkers and complexes. More important, the artillery pieces of the NVA 675th Artillery Regiment had been placed in unknown locations close to Co Roc Mountain in neighboring Laos, officially off limits to the U.S. troops in Operation Pegasus.
Cavalry in the Crosshairs
LZ Wharton looked like most of the landing zones established during Operation Pegasus. From the air, the bomb craters from B-52 Rolling Thunder airstrikes had the appearance of orange lesions in the terrain. What was left of the underbrush consisted of tall elephant grass thick enough for predators, animal or human, to move about freely. Thick jungle remained in the areas missed by bombs or defoliants sprayed from the sky. Ridgelines melted into other ridgelines or spilled into open valleys.
LZ Wharton’s highest point was roughly 1,600 feet in elevation. At its apex was counterbattery radar, used to detect the location of enemy artillery firing at the landing zone. Along the peak, numerous signal antennae stuck out of the ground like quills on a bristly porcupine. Two ridges sloped downward from the hilltop. One ridgeline held the 155 mm towed howitzers of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 30th Artillery. The other side of the hill supported the 105 mm howitzers of Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery. Both batteries generally faced west.
Ringing the entire perimeter were widely spaced foxholes and bunkers. The elephant grass around each bunker was cut short and often burned, which enabled American troops to more easily see the approaching NVA. Steep slopes and wide fields of fire would deter most NVA ground attacks, but not artillery attacks.
Enemy shelling began almost immediately during the initial airlift to LZ Wharton. The first instance occurred at 4:30 p.m. on April 3 with three rounds hitting inside the landing zone’s perimeter, and 45 minutes later three more rounds impacted on the hill. As the Marines at Khe Sanh had known for months, surviving the constant artillery barrages required moving operations largely underground. The infantrymen at LZ Wharton struggled to dig deeper foxholes and set up an overhead cover of interlocking logs and sandbags. In the past, a 2-foot-deep foxhole was sufficient, but the grunts now were making holes up to 5 feet deep to escape the steel rain of artillery from Laos.
By 10:15 p.m., hidden NVA forward observers had bracketed LZ Wharton to direct strikes for their artillery units. Over a span of 15 minutes, 25 artillery rounds (probably from Soviet-made 130 mm towed field guns) slammed into LZ Wharton. In the open areas or shallow bunkers, casualties quickly began to mount.
“I’m counting the days till I’m out of the Godforsaken place,” said Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, Spc. 4 Don Sykes of Savannah, Georgia, to Pvt. Richard Loeffels of Greenville, South Carolina. “I’m practically a short-timer.” Suddenly, Sykes jumped up and made a frenzied dash toward his bunker but was cut down. Alpha Company’s mortar platoon also received a direct hit. Pvt. Greg Pylman’s mortars were destroyed, and he received shrapnel wounds to his chest.
By early morning of April 4, debris was strewn about, and shredded poncho liners hung from the few trees on LZ Wharton. The dirty faces and blank stares of the wounded showed the terror of the night’s artillery barrage. The information relayed from the landing zone to Lt. Col. Leslie Runkle, commanding officer of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, still at LZ Stud, was dire: “Sir, we have multiple casualties in all companies. One of the severely wounded is Black Gold Six [Bravo Company’s commander] who is having difficulty breathing.” The battalion had suffered six killed and 17 wounded in four companies. The Bravo Company commander, Capt. Michael Nawrosky, died from his wounds a few months later in an Army hospital.
In the scramble to tend to the wounded on LZ Wharton, a trooper from Georgia with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, Capt. Joseph “Max” Cleland, a future U.S. senator, performed actions recognized with a Silver Star Medal that he received for disregarding his own safety to assist the wounded. Medevac helicopters ready to lift off with wounded men on April 4 were delayed by a low ceiling of fog and light drizzle that hung over the hill like a soggy, white blanket. The photographs by Burrows, Fincher and Van Phuoc memorably captured the scene of wounded and dead soldiers awaiting evacuation. The journalists flew out that morning to file their first photos of the operation.
At LZ Stud, Runkle was in a hurry to move the 1st Battalion’s tactical operations center—the command group for battlefield decisions—to LZ Wharton. The colonel, with a slender cigar in his mouth, anxiously paced about his cramped bunker. All the helicopters at LZ Stud sat idle under an 800-foot ceiling of fog mixed with rain. Two pilots, however, volunteered to fly Runkle to his troops at LZ Wharton.
In a hoarse voice aggravated by chain smoking over the past several days, Runkle told battalion assistant operations officer Capt. Joe Lyttle, to replace the badly wounded Nawrosky as commander of Bravo Company. Runkle also grabbed Capt. David Peters, his artillery liaison officer from 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, for the flight. They planned to fly down Highway 9 and recon the old French fort as the helicopter turned south toward LZ Wharton.
Runkle’s normal pilot, whose aircraft was grounded that morning with mechanical problems, watched in disbelief as the colonel’s command and control Huey lifted up, piloted by the volunteers from his platoon, and slowly slid into the white soup hanging over the valley.
Once the fog lifted, LZ Wharton was crowded with activity as medevacs continuously flew in and loaded casualties. Sgt. Tom Perkowski, in the command bunker of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, tried to make radio contact with Runkle’s Huey—called “Charlie Charlie” for command-control—as early as 11:30 a.m., but his attempts brought no reply. Turning to the battalion operations officer standing nearby, Perkowski looked up and conceded, “Maj. Bean, I’ve lost commo with the Charlie Charlie.” Twenty minutes later, scouts from 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, confirmed what many in the bunker had feared: The Huey carrying Runkle had been shot down.
The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, was only 200 yards or so from the wreckage, but pinned down by heavy NVA small-arms fire. Runkle’s Huey had flown just a few hundred feet above an NVA force about the size of a battalion. Hundreds of automatic weapons opened up at once on the low-flying aircraft. When the 2nd Battalion troops finally reached the crash site, they discovered the NVA had systematically shot the men who had been on the helicopter, whether they survived the hard landing or not. The only survivor was Lyttle, who was partly concealed by the downed helicopter and escaped execution. However, a gunshot had penetrated his left arm, gone through his chest and hit his spine, permanently paralyzing him from the waist down.
McDonough, the colonel at LZ Stud in charge of the 2nd Brigade, was forced to reconstitute the command structure, replacing Runkle with Lt. Col. Zeke Jordan, a dashing West Point graduate with a pencil-thin mustache. Capt. Duke Wheeler, another West Point graduate, was elevated to liaison officer for 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, replacing Peters. Jordan arrived on LZ Wharton at 1 p.m. on April 4. The impending attack of the old French fort would be delayed one day.
As the sun set over the second day on LZ Wharton, troops with frayed nerves thought about the possibility of another artillery barrage, the loss of a respected commander and an expected attack on the landing zone. Adding to the tension, a soldier from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, was wounded when a fragmentation grenade was thrown into his listening post during the early-morning darkness. The North Vietnamese were very much active and probing.
Assault on the Old French Fort
The early morning sun of April 5 tried to burn off the nighttime haze as the four line companies of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, with Delta Company in the lead, departed from LZ Wharton and moved north. Slowed by disorder from the change in command, the approximately 350 men of the battalion were finally beginning their assault on the old French fort. Ahead of them was heavy resistance from 500 well-entrenched NVA fighters.
Shortly thereafter, the operations center at LZ Wharton began to receive calls from units that saw the enemy out in the open. Later, an NVA tank was spotted in a nearby tree line, but it vanished back into the jungle before the rocket-armed Hueys of 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery Regiment (Blue Max), could reach the area.
NVA artillery harassed the exposed troops as they made their way toward the fort. Five rounds hit at 9:45 a.m., and three more arrived a little over an hour later. “There was no place to hide,” said Pat Manijo of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. “I just hit the ground and hoped for the best. As I did, a sizzling piece of metal landed with a thud right next to me.” Manijo was unscathed, but four of his team were wounded and removed in medevacs.
A short time later, the NVA tank reappeared and began firing on LZ Wharton and the advancing American troops. Again, Blue Max helicopters were called to the scene, only to find the tank had again disappeared. Unable to reach the fort, the 1st Battalion companies pulled back and settled in for the evening close to LZ Wharton’s protective cover. Even so, 13 enemy rocket rounds and seven artillery rounds from Laos fell on those companies.
LZ Wharton itself was not a safe place, either. An additional 14 rockets and six mortar rounds hit troops inside the perimeter. The 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, which had largely escaped casualties, suffered four killed and five wounded. As before, the wounded could not be evacuated until later the next day when the weather cleared.
The morning of April 6, the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, again attempted to seize control of the fort. Built on high ground, it provided a great vantage point to observe the surrounding terrain. And although old, it was sufficiently fortified to endure significant battle damage. As soon as the fog burned off, Charlie Company called in to report more than 100 NVA in the open. Three-war veteran 1st Sgt. Robert Fowler calmly radioed, “We need mortar support. The enemy are coming out of this fort like ants,” trying to flank the American positions.
The 1st Battalion continued to press its attack, but casualties mounted under the withering fire of NVA mortars. Delta Company took the brunt of the shelling. More than 70 mortar rounds dropped on its men from 11:50 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. At least 46 of the roughly 75 Delta troopers were wounded, and three were killed. The assistant battalion operations officer at LZ Wharton, 1st Lt. Charles Brown, was calling for medevacs based on requests from commander Jordan and could see the shelling in the distance. “As I watched the smoke from the mortar rounds landing, the request for medevacs seemed to never end,” he said. “Tough times with tough fighting.”
Confronted with mounting casualties against a fully garrisoned fort, the 1st Battalion was forced to abandon its attack. But airstrikes battered the fort with napalm and explosives for the rest of the day.
On April 7, the 1st Battalion was replaced by the 5th Cavalry’s 2nd Battalion. By then the NVA had largely abandoned the fort, and the 2nd Battalion took control of it, eliminating the final NVA stronghold between the advancing 1st Air Cav units and the Khe Sanh base.
During the first few days of Operation Pegasus (April 1-6), the four line companies of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, suffered 13 killed and 127 wounded. The brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, took an additional 13 casualties during that period. In total, the 2nd Brigade lost about 40 percent of its forces to casualties during the opening weeks of Operation Pegasus—just the beginning of hard fighting that would last for another month.
Fighting with understrength companies characterized the remainder of the 2nd Brigade’s combat operations to relieve the siege of Khe Sanh. On April 8, the 3rd Cavalry Brigade hooked up with the Marines outside the base. The siege was broken.
Although the area today is now overgrown with verdant forests and underbrush that conceal the scars of war, the skytroopers and artillerymen who fought there in April 1968 will never forget its deadly past.
—John McGuire is a forester and wildlife biologist from South Alabama. His interest in the 1st Cavalry blossomed several years ago when he discovered a shoebox full of medals and photos after the death of a close family friend.