Remembering Dak To
An email conversation in 2020 between Ernie Camacho, Air Traffic Controller, and Norm Spaulding, 4th Infantry officer.
An email conversation in 2020 between Ernie Camacho, Air Traffic Controller, and Norm Spaulding, 4th Infantry officer.
Airfield Terminal building
C130 engine used for target practice with M79 grenades.
A1E Skyraider after emergency landing
C47 "Spooky" gunship firing
C130, terminal, forklift wreckage
4th ID Tactical Operations Center
It is good to hear from you. I was at Dak To from June ‘67 through March ‘68, so I was there during the time you were there.
So glad to hear from you. Here is a rundown of my experiences at Dak To.
As I mentioned, I arrived in the ‘nam in November 1967 and was assigned to Hq, 1st Bde, 4th Infantry Division (Ivy) at Dak To. I arrived just at the beginning of the Battle of Dak To which lasted from 1 November to 3 December 1967 (footnote 1). I recall stepping off the slick at Dak To and seeing an airstrike underway on top of Hill 1338, the big mountain to the south of Dak To. I was assigned to Brigade Staff until July then assumed command of the HHC, 1st Brigade located at Dak To Fire Support Base (FSB). During my staff tour, I was Perimeter Defense Officer (PDO) and coordinated the construction of additional bunkers around the Dak To perimeter. This work included adding additional hard targets to the base shooting range. I also served as a liaison officer to the Special Forces at Dak To and sister camps at Ben Het, Dak Seang, and Dak Pek. Interestingly, I had some unique involvement with the Special Forces at Cam Duc. More to follow on this experience.
After the Battle of Dak To ended in early December 1967, the NVA retreated to their sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos. After that, the Dak To area became relatively quiet until January 21st, 1968 when the NVA and VC attacked the Marine base at Khe Sanh. They positioned their artillery inside North Vietnam and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This enabled them to shell Khe Sanh around the clock halting the Marine’s ability to resupply the base overland. The Marines were forced to resupply by air which required transport aircraft to dash in and off-load as quickly as possible and hope that NVA artillery could be suppressed long enough for them to get in and out safely. Several C-130 aircraft were lost flying these perilous resupply missions..
While their artillery pounded Khe Sanh base, the NVA Infantry dug trenches towards the base the same as they did at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when they defeated the French. The Marines fought back tenaciously with their artillery, tactical air strikes and B52’s that dropped their bombs as close to friendly troops as safety would permit. Fighting at Khe Sanh continued until July when the NVA pulled back. Subsequently, Khe Sanh was razed and abandoned (see footnote 2).
The attack on Khe Sanh on January 21,1968 was a diversion in advance of the NVA/VC country-wide attack that took place throughout South Vietnam under the cover of the Tet Lunar New Year. Tet was usually recognized with a cease fire. ARVN soldiers took leave to celebrate Tet with their families while American and allied troops stood down to enjoy the break from combat. The offensive was launched prematurely in the late night hours of 30 January in the I and II Corps Tactical Zones of South Vietnam. This early attack allowed allied forces some time to prepare defensive measures. When the main operation began the next morning, the offensive was countrywide and well-coordinated; eventually more than 80,000 NVA and VC troops struck more than 100 towns and cities, including 36 of 44 provincial capitals, five of the six autonomous cities, 72 of 245 district towns, and the southern capital. The offensive was the largest military operation conducted by either side up to that point in the war (see footnote 3).
After a month of hard fighting that saw extensive loss of life on both sides and much destruction, the NVA and VC again pulled back to their sanctuaries to rebuild and re-equip their forces. American units did the same. In the US, the administration was deeply shaken and undertook to determine how an attack of this magnitude could occur without our Intelligence capabilities knowing about it. Tet was also a clear indication that the war was not moving toward a conclusion and fighting would continue for months, even years to come. While the NVA/VC were soundly beaten on the battlefield, the reaction of much of the US population, especially students and veterans of the war in Vietnam, began to openly demonstrate for an end to the war. This was an unexpected result for the NVA, validating their belief that Americans would grow weary of the war and begin to clamor for their government to accept an end to the war on terms favorable to North Vietnam.
After Tet, ground fighting in much of South Vietnam slowed, but several “hot spots” remained. Fighting at Khe Sanh continued until early in July. Intelligence also showed that infiltration along the border was also continuing as the NVA continued to move war materials down the Ho Chi Minh trail and to stockpile them in their sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. Despite around-the-clock interdiction by USAF bombers, the flow of supplies was never halted, and the enemy continued to reinforce and resupply his units throughout the war. In March and April, activity in the Dak Pek area began to increase. With the sting of the Tet offensive still fresh, HQ, Military Assistance Command (MACV), which commanded all Army forces in Vietnam, moved the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) to Dak To in anticipation of action against the enemy. I was directed to accompany the 101st to Dak Pek and to take along six enlisted personnel from the brigade staff to establish and operate a communications/coordination center. This group would maintain communications between the Special Forces, the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division (Ivy), and the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). At this point, the duration of our assignment at Dak Pek was unknown and the details of our mission aside from communication was primarily “be prepared to_________”. I assembled my group and the equipment we would need: tentage and rations, and briefed them on as much of the mission as I was familiar with. On arrival at Pak Pek, we coordinated with the SF, were given an area to pitch our tents and a location to operate from. While the troops were getting us setup and organized, I reported to Special Forces Lt Col Longfellow who oversaw our Task Team (TT). For the duration of this operation, we would be known as TT Longfellow.
Almost as soon as we arrived at Dak Pek, the advance party from the 101st that we accompanied there told us that they were being diverted back to their parent unit at Phu Bai. That said, they left. Shortly, we were told that we were to remain at Dak Pek for the time being and to continue with the mission as intended, only now without the 101st. With those instructions, we settled in, wondering what was going on and expecting that our stay at Dak Pek would most likely only be a few days.
Soon, our work, or lack of work, at Dak Pek became boring and monotonous, however three events are memorable:
82mm Mortar Incoming.
Speaks for itself. Periodically we would be hit by a few mortar rounds. The gunner would walk the rounds around whatever his target was. We had no injuries and no property damage.
Observation of Possible NVA/VC by Reconnaissance Aircraft.
Once, an O-1 Bird Dog flying a Headhunter mission observed some individuals floating logs down a tributary of the Dak Poko River. According to the pilot, they were not wearing uniforms, did not appear to be armed, and made no attempt to run or hide. However, they were in a Free Fire Zone which, according to the Rules of Engagement, made them fair game. We passed this observation to the SF who then coordinated with the Vietnamese camp commander. Word came back down from the camp commander that the target was cleared to be engaged. Our two attached 155mm howitzers fired three volleys as the Headhunter adjusted their fire. Afterward, the Headhunter reported that the target was neutralized.
The S2 (Intelligence), 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, tracks and plots various elements of information. Most of the sources of this information are classified. One important category of information is called Special Agent Report, or SPARS. The S2 had been tracking a SPARS that were appearing west of Cam Duc SF Camp, about 80 kilometers north of Dak To. The SPARS were identified as 2d NVA Division. The SPARS continued to develop and grew into one large red circle together. This indicated a lot of activity close to the SF Camp. The brigade S2 called us back to Dak To to brief us on this development and direct us to fly up to Cam Duc and share this information with them. He gave me an overlay of the map on which the SPARS were marked. The overlay was classified SECRET.
Cam Duc SF Camp.
On or about 8 May 1968, we flew to Cam Duc about 85 kilometers north of Dak To. Cam Duc was one of many SF camps established along the border with Laos. As we were landing, I was thinking that the camp did not appear different than any other SF camp I had been to. However, several aircraft and helicopters were parked next to the runway and there were a lot of individuals moving around that were wearing fatigues with an unusual camouflage pattern. We were met by the SF Camp Commander who took us to the Team House. I told him that we would not stay long as our Huey had re-supply runs to make and needed to get back to Dak To. I told him that we were there to share information about enemy activity that was close to his camp and that activity was identified as the 2d NVA Division. I showed him the overlay with the SPAR plots. He did not seem overly excited, which I took to mean that he was familiar with the information and was not concerned about it. During our short meeting, the camp commander mentioned that he had two US Marine howitzers positioned on top of a mountain called Ngoc Travak. He wanted us to see this position. We also wanted to see it as well, so we flew out in our UH-1D (Huey).
Ngoc Travak was a high mountain about 10 kilometers inside South Vietnam. It is very steep and appeared to have little space for a UH-1 to set down. Our pilot landed and we got out. I told him to keep it running in case we need to depart quickly. The camp commander introduced us to the Marines, all of whom were enlisted. Some were NCOs. There were two 105mm howitzers with ammunition, each positioned in a sandbagged parapet. The tubes were near the edge of the mountain. The Marines had dug fighting positions, but they lacked overhead cover. I recall seeing some foxholes and some crates and stuff. Ngoc Travak was very steep and the howitzers and ammo along with the other equipment had to be airlifted to their position. We were on-site about 10 minutes. We then left, we took the camp commander back to Cam Duc, then flew back to Dak To. I briefed the S2 and shared my thoughts about the Marine artillery on Ngoc Travak. The S2 reminded me that Cam Duc, Ngoc Travak, and the Marine artillery were outside our jurisdiction.
On May 10, 1968, the 2d NVA Division attacked and overran the Cam Duc Special Forces Camp (see footnote 4).
By the way, do you remember the concrete building that was at the east end of the runway? I recall that it took a near hit from a 122mm rocket. Pictures of this building are included in the roll of photographs that I took during the year. Shrapnel damage is visible, but not enough to have been caused by a rocket. The damage was probably caused by an 82mm mortar or 75mm recoilless rifle. I think this building was the airport terminal before the war; we used it as a pick-up point for troops flying back to Camp Enari or Camp Holloway.
You probably remember when the NVA hit the ammo dump and the resulting explosion destroyed all the ammunition along with two C-130 Hercules aircraft parked on the loading ramp. I was in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) when the ammo dump was hit. The explosions lasted all day and pieces of shrapnel fell all over the firebase. I remember there was a massive explosion when all the C4 explosive went up. I was talking to a guy who had taken cover in the TOC when the explosions began. The concussion from the C4 explosion was so great that it knocked us both down. A couple of days later, I was looking over the destroyed ammo dump. There was a C-130 Hercules aircraft on the ramp with a damaged radome. During the inferno, fire fighters tried to push parked aircraft back to save them. They used a tank recovery vehicle which damaged the radome. These brave guys saved that airplane, but they were unable to save two others that were destroyed. Pictures of these aircraft are shown elsewhere on this website.
Not associated with the ammo dump explosion and fire are pictures of two Air Force A1-E Skyraiders that made an emergency landing at Dak To. These are close-up pictures that I took as they were taxing to take off – they have their wings folded. I am sure you will remember some of this stuff.
Yes, that building on the airfield ramp was there before we got there. It was the “Passenger Terminal” if you will. It was not destroyed, just damaged. But I could be wrong. I am not totally sure what all was hit in the rocket attacks besides the runway and a troop bunker (where a soldier was killed, I believe).
Yes, now I remember. On the brigade staff, we referred to the building as the “Passenger Terminal”, but that was really a misnomer. It was quite small and to my knowledge, it was not used for anything other than as a pick-up point for troops hitching a helicopter ride back to Camp Enari or Camp Holloway. The building was painted a bright green and white, quite different from the usual brown and olive drab associated with most military equipment and facilities.
I was in the airfield tower when the ammo dump was hit. I have audio tape of my talking to my family during it. Later I would use the engine wreckage for target practice with my M79.
After joining the brigade, I was assigned as Perimeter Defense Officer. My job was to coordinate the construction of bunkers around the base. Since the Dak Poko River formed the south boundary, our plan was to integrate additional bunkers along the north, west and east sides of the perimeter. I was also tasked to improve an existing firing range located outside the perimeter on the northeast side, almost directly across the runway from where the destroyed ammo dump was located. For the most part, the range was in usable condition. It just needed to be cleaned up and new targets placed at extended ranges. We wanted to add hard targets and the ammo dump explosion produced several large pieces of destroyed equipment that were suitable targets. One of the targets selected was the ammo dump forklift. It weighed about 10,000 lbs. and the tires were burned off, so it needed to be dragged to the range. To move this heavy forklift, I arranged with the 4/64th Armor to use their tank recovery vehicle (VTR) to drag the forklift around the runway and position it on the shooting range. I had doubts about the VTR’s capability to pull it, but I need not have been concerned. The VTR pulled it as easily as if it had wheels. You may have even shot at the forklift with your M79.
I didn't use the fork lift for target practice; I used the C130 engine instead.
I was also in the tower when the A-1E’s came in, the only time that aircraft type landed at Dak To during my stay. The one pilot could not see because of oil on his canopy, so his wing man guided him all the way down to the ground.
I did not see the oil on the windshield. They had yet to touch down when they passed over me so I could not see the windshield. When they took off though, I had a good look at them and I remember oil all over the cowling, but not on the windshield. It was probably cleaned off at that point. Those old recip. engines threw out as much oil as they burned.
The A-1s were a fascination. Being propeller driven, the sound of those engines was a thrill to hear. The shape of the aircraft reminded me of the type used in World War II. A-1s entered service with the Navy at the end of the war so they did not see combat until the Korean War. Being a Navy aircraft, they were designed to operate from aircraft carriers, so their wings folded to conserve deck space.
Once before, two A1-Es put in an air strike across the river from Dak To. They strafed a suspected enemy position with their 20mm Cannon. After the strafe, they performed a Split-S maneuver which brought them back over the target for another pass. Watching the A-1s work reminded me that old is sometimes better than new. The old propeller aircraft could perform maneuvers that jet aircraft were unable to perform because of their speed and other characteristics. These old birds were also capable of remaining over the target for a long time. Long loiter time could be crucial to troops on the ground who needed to be a safe distance from exploding ordnance. Breaking contact and pulling back often required loiter time that jet aircraft just did not have.
I tried several times to go up with the O-1 Bird Dog pilots, but never did. One or two of my fellow controllers did go up. We wanted to relieve the boredom with a little artillery spotter action.
I flew as observer in both the O-1 and O-2 aircraft. On one occasion, I got sick as a dog in an O-2. We were putting in air strikes Northeast of Tanh Canh. My headset was not working so I could not hear the pilot talking to the fighters. The O-2 had clear plastic over the cockpit which provided only minimal protection from the sun. Between the sun and the twists, turns, and dives, I got mondo nauseous. I managed to keep from getting sick until just before we touched down back at Dak To. I did not have a barf bag, but I was able to get my mouth near the window at the corner of the door and windscreen. You can only imagine what puke looks like when it hits a 120 MPH slipstream. Believe me, nothing will anger an Air Force pilot more than puking in or on his airplane. I was not invited to fly AO [Aerial Observer] after that.
Were you there when the OH-23 pilot was shot while over the NW corner and died when he crashed in the resupply area? I was in the tower then too, trying to get him to land as quickly as possible.
Yes, I remember it well. I saw this “Bubble’ doing crazy maneuvers – climb, stall, climb, stall, and then he dropped below my line of sight. The next thing I saw was black smoke boiling into the sky. To get to the crash site, I had to climb over several stands of concertina wire. I ruined a new set of fatigues in the process. When I got to the scene, the fire was already out. The biggest piece remaining was the engine and transmission. I could see the charred remains of the pilot. He had his arms crossed over his face which I took to be an instinctive reaction just before impact. Our S4 (Supply & Logistics), a Major by the name of Mazyk, was leading a recovery operation. They had wrapped a canvas strap around the engine and were trying to pull it off the pilot. Initially, we thought that the pilot might be our brigade pilot, but he was not. The OH-23 belonged to the Artillery. Later, we heard that it was hit by ground fire just north of the base.
As for documenting all of this, I can help by digitizing photos, while you can help by writing down or recording any stories you have that you feel are worth sharing with the world.
Will do. I do not believe I have any photos that are inappropriate, but I will keep discretion in mind as I go through them. Feel free to do the same when you review my stuff. I need to think about this. BTW, as you know, when the ammo dump went up, a lot of ordnance was thrown around the base – some of it unexploded. The conflagration went on for hours, but I remember towards the end, there was a massive explosion when a large cache of C4 explosive went up. I was inside the brigade TOC talking to some trooper who had run in there when the shelling began. This guy was carrying a M1A1 Thompson Submachinegun which was something you did not see every day. I was holding the gun, looking it over and thinking how heavy it was – about 12 pounds. The exploding C4 created a large concussion which knocked both of us down despite being insight the TOQ probably a quarter of a mile away. That heavy Thompson landed across my chest. It hurt so bad that I thought I had broken some ribs.
Another anecdote that comes to mind occurred during the Battle of Dak To. I had been in-country only a few days and was pulling a shift as Perimeter Defense Officer (PDO). Things were quiet, but we had a Spooky on station in case we were hit or attacked. For those unfamiliar with the Spookys, they were old C-47 transport aircraft converted into gunships (see footnote 5). The call sign of this Spooky was Spooky 23. So, the pilot comes up on our radio net and says this is Spook23 and he sees a line of flashlights moving below. Do you want us to engage? The PAVN often used flashlights at night to see where they were going. I was new in-country and not familiar with the protocols for obtaining clearance to engage from the unit that controlled the area. I incorrectly assumed that flashlights moving on the ground at night could only be PAVN and therefore, a legitimate target. I told Spooky to engage. I am sure you know what Spooky looks and sounds like when firing their three 7.62mm gatling guns (see footnote 5). Well, almost immediately we received a radio call from an irate Infantry Battalion Commander demanding to know why the hell Spooky was firing into his AO (Area of Operation). Fortunately, Spooky’s engagement did not harm any friendly troops and I never heard whether we killed any bad guys or not. The incident was sure a lesson to me about shooting into another guy’s AO without obtaining approval. In retrospect, I should have handed Spooky off to the battalion who controlled that area and let them work with him. No harm, no foul – FORTUNATELY.
Thanks for the details. Here are some more comments from me:
There was already a firing range in place on the north side. It was built by the French when they built the runway. It had a trench behind the targets and in front of the tall berm. It looked like they could tend to the targets from down in the trench. It was a fancy setup for a firing range.
I do not remember the layout of the range, but I did have some involvement with it in my initial duty as PDO. Along about the November-December timeframe, we were receiving stacks of lumber that were supposed to be prefabricated bunker/tower kits. The stuff was all jumbled together and there were no instructions on how to put it together. My job was to coordinate with the perimeter defense units to use their troops to put the bunkers and towers together. Without instructions, putting the kits together was like assembling a jig-saw puzzle. At this point, the initiative of the American soldier came to the fore. The NCOs in charge of the work details arranged with the Engineer Company to use a bulldozer to dig large holes that would be the basis of ground level bunkers. Then, they used the lumber in the kits to form the walls, ceiling sides and ceiling of the bunkers. Each structure was then enclosed in enough sandbags to stop small arms, rocket propelled grenades, and 82mm mortars. They could also absorb shrapnel from a near miss of a 122mm rocket, but it could not survive a direct hit.
Different units worked on the bunkers as they cycled through Dak To for a few days of stand-down. Of these units, I remember the Cavalry most vividly because of their aggressive approach to constructing the bunkers and their active night-time defense. During the night, the Cav would randomly fire a “Mad Minute”. Everybody on the line would fire his weapon into his sector. Mad Minutes have been known to catch infiltrators in the wire and to break up an attack just before daylight when PAVN were known to attack. Mad Minutes consumed a lot of ammunition and when exercised around built-up areas, they could be confusing and disturbing. We experienced this at Dak To and as PDO, I was told to inform the commander of the troops on the line to knock off the Mad Minutes.
Back to the firing range. Part of my job as PDO was to try to improve its usefulness. After the ammo dump went up, there was a burned out Hyster forklift amongst the rubble. I arranged with the Armor guys to drag it around the end of the runway to the range and then position it. I was not sure whether their tank retriever could pull it. The tires were burned so they would have to drag its 10,000-pound dead-weight. Was I surprised! The tank retriever pulled the forklift with no difficulties. Given where you guys were located, you probably witnessed this spectacle.
I too went to the crash scene of that OH-23. I had alerted our fire truck to go there. They called back to say they needed more foam, so I handed the mic to another controller and jumped into our 3/4 ton to take 5-gallon cans of foam to them. Two of us were rushing as if we could make a difference. When we got to the scene, we saw that the pilot was dead. While loading the foam cans on the 3/4 ton, I smashed my left thumb, and spent that night awake with the pain.
I am familiar with Spooky gunships. The first night we were at Dak To, near the end of June, the SF camp was heavily mortared. The SF folks would not let us inside their perimeter, so we set up our GP medium tent across the runway, where the tower eventually would stand. Several mortars were sent our way but luckily their aim was a bit off, by only a dozen yards or so. Surprisingly good aiming, I thought. We spent the night crouched in a slit trench just west of our tent, probably constructed by the French. Mortars were walked along the length of the trench but got no closer than a couple feet. In the middle of it all, a Spooky started up. I have photos of its tracer stream. It was a very welcome sight since we were expecting a ground assault that again luckily did not happen. And then a couple other times they operated near us, as you related.
That C4 explosion in the ammo dump was described in at least one account, either written or in a documentary, as being the single largest explosion of the war. A few of us had left our bunker to start cleaning up our GP medium tent, thinking that the rain of shrapnel was over. I was in the middle of the tent, watching a buddy as he stepped out the end closest to the runway. I saw him look up at the fire ball and then the blast wave hit, knocking us to the ground and filling the tent with dust. Very memorable!
There were a couple of other times that I was in contact with the TOC, when I was in the tower, rockets were falling, and the TOC wanted to know where they were landing. Everyone else was in bunkers.
I think I mentioned that I was in the TOC when the C4 exploded and knocked another guy and myself down. On another occasion, we started taking incoming in the afternoon during our daily Operations Briefing. These briefings took place in a GP Large tent just outside of the TOQ. These briefings were well attended so there was standing room only. In the middle of the briefing, a round exploded near the tent. Immediately, everybody in the briefing tent began to scatter – some running into each other, others jumping over chairs, some even diving through the mosquito netting that covered the outside of the tent. Everybody was running for cover, including myself.
Inside the TOC, I positioned myself near the radios so I could hear any traffic that had to do with the incoming. The radios were positioned on a desk that offered a clear view outside through the TOC entryway. The incoming continued and I saw this Jeep type vehicle come speeding into the open area. A round then appeared to hit the vehicle and it disappeared in a cloud of dust and smoke. I immediately thought that the occupants must have been killed, but then, out of the smoke, two guys were running toward the TOC. Actually, one individual was staggering, being helped by the other. As soon as the two entered the TOC, the one guy collapsed on the floor. I then saw that the guy on the floor was our newly assigned Executive officer (XO). A couple of people ran to the XO, one knelt down and pulled open the XOs fatigue shirt. I could then see that he had a slice in his side. One of the guys kneeling over him spread the slice open. I could clearly see the grey fat, but no blood or discoloration that would have indicated that the shrapnel that hit him had penetrated the stomach cavity. The guy who examined the XO stood up and said “He’ll be OK”. That is when I noticed the Caduceus on his lapel indicating that he was in the Medical Corps. In fact, he was a Doctor who had been attending the afternoon briefing.
The XO was medivacked, and I heard later that he had more serious wounds to his lungs. With wounds that serious, his war was over after just a few days in country. Hell of a way to make Colonel and qualify for Brigade command.
After the attack ended, I had an opportunity to inspect the Jeep. The round that hit appeared to have come from the direction of Hill 1338. It was probably a 75mm Recoilless Rifle round. A mortar round would have come straight down. Simple analysis of the dirt around the crater will suggest the direction that the round came from. This round had come straight in and burrowed under a piece of lumber that was covered by the packed earth in the open area in front of the TOC. The lumber was shredded, but it appeared to deflect the blast from the round away from the Jeep. The Jeep had shrapnel holes throughout, but it was not destroyed as it would have been if had taken a direct hit. A direct hit would have killed the XO and his driver. Thank God for a single piece of scrap lumber. Analyzing the crater and computing a back azimuth and knowing the maximum range of a 75mm Recoilless Rifle suggested the possible location from where the round came from. The information obtained from this analysis indicated that the round had missed the Briefing Tent by inches. Fortunately, it was not the first round and by the time this round hit, the tent had been evacuated and occupants had found cover.
On another occasion, a 5-ton truck parked behind the briefing tent took a direct hit from a 122 rocket. Pictures of this destroyed truck are in my photograph roll.
So, it seems we both have memories of the same events, but from our different perspectives.
It is so interesting that we were so close to each other and have pretty much the same recollections – simply different perspectives.
I left Dak To in November 1968 and flew out of Bien Hoa almost one year to the day I had arrived. The return flight was on a chartered Flying Tiger 707. I will never forget the applause and noise as we slipped over the coast enroute to Japan. Fifteen minutes later, I believe that all of us were asleep. We had survived.
Some of us who were careerists would return to Vietnam again. My second tour came in June 1970. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, still located at Phu Bai, RVN. I was assigned as Assistant S1 (Personnel and Administration) and would move into the S1 position at the end of my predecessor’s tour. I remained in this position until April 1971 when my tour was curtailed as US Forces were drawing down. The ten months of this tour had been completely uneventful although the nature of the war had changed significantly. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had assumed a more involved role in the fighting while the American presence was being scaled back. The outlook and attitude of US Forces was noticeably different than during my first tour. Troops were less soldierly as was apparent by the lack of military courtesy, military bearing, and morale. Use of drugs was rampant and fragging of Officers and NCOs who pushed too hard was not uncommon. The general attitude was to give the war over to the ARVN and “get the hell out of Dodge”. Nobody wanted to be the last guy (or girl) hurt or killed in a war that had long since lost its purpose.
My career ended in April 1984, almost thirteen years to the day that I left Vietnam. During those years, the Army changed substantially and most of the problems that lingered after Vietnam were corrected and by the time of our next all-out conflict in the Gulf, our military was again on the cutting edge of combat efficiency. We disposed of the Gulf unpleasantness quickly and in overwhelming fashion, but this victory did not and has not brought peace to that part of the world. Today, we face other enemies that rival us in both nuclear and conventional capabilities and the number of flashpoints around the globe are more than ever. It is not a far stretch to suspect that the 21st Century will not end without a reckoning that could see the destruction of the world.
Battle of Dak To - Wikipedia
The battle of Dak To (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Đắk Tô - Tân Cảnh) in Vietnam was a series of major engagements of the Vietnam War that took place between 3 and 23 November 1967, in Kon Tum Province, in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The action at Đắk Tô was one of a series of People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) offensive initiatives that began during the second half of the year. PAVN attacks at Lộc Ninh (in Bình Long Province), Song Be (in Phước Long Province) and at Con Thien and Khe Sanh, (in Quảng Trị Province), were other actions which, combined with Đắk Tô, became known as "the border battles". The post hoc purported objective of the PAVN forces was to distract American and South Vietnamese forces away from cities towards the borders in preparation for the Tet Offensive. During the summer of 1967, engagements with PAVN forces in the area prompted the launching of Operation Greeley, a combined search and destroy effort by elements of the U. S. 4th Infantry Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 42nd Infantry Regiment, 22nd Division and Airborne units. The fighting was intense and lasted into late 1967, when the PAVN seemingly withdrew. By late October U.S. intelligence indicated that local communist units had been reinforced and combined into the PAVN 1st Division, which was to capture of Đắk Tô and the destruction of a brigade-size U.S. unit. Information provided by a PAVN defector provided the allies a good indication of the locations of PAVN forces. This intelligence prompted the launching of Operation MacArthur and brought the units back to the area along with more reinforcements from the ARVN Airborne Division. The battles on the hill masses south and southeast of Đắk Tô became some of the hardest-fought and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Battle of Khe Sanh - Wikipedia
The Battle of Khe Sanh (21 January – 9 July 1968) was conducted in the Khe Sanh area of northwestern Quảng Trị Province, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), during the Vietnam War. The main US forces defending Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) were two regiments of the United States Marine Corps supported by elements from the United States Army and the United States Air Force (USAF), as well as a small number of Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops. These were pitted against two to three divisional-size elements of the North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
The US command in Saigon initially believed that combat operations around KSCB during 1967 were part of a series of minor PAVN offensives in the border regions. That appraisal was later altered when the PAVN was found to be moving major forces into the area. In response, US forces were built up before the PAVN isolated the Marine base. Once the base came under siege, a series of actions was fought over a period of five months. During this time, KSCB and the hilltop outposts around it were subjected to constant PAVN artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks, and several infantry assaults. To support the Marine base, a massive aerial bombardment campaign (Operation Niagara) was launched by the USAF. Over 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped by US aircraft and over 158,000 artillery rounds were fired in defense of the base. Throughout the campaign, US forces used the latest technology to locate PAVN forces for targeting. Additionally, the logistical effort required to support the base once it was isolated demanded the implementation of other tactical innovations to keep the Marines supplied.
In March 1968, an overland relief expedition (Operation Pegasus) was launched by a combined Marine–Army/ARVN task force that eventually broke through to the Marines at Khe Sanh. American commanders considered the defense of Khe Sanh a success, but shortly after the siege was lifted, the decision was made to dismantle the base rather than risk similar battles in the future. On 19 June 1968, the evacuation and destruction of KSCB began. Amid heavy shelling, the Marines attempted to salvage what they could before destroying what remained as they were evacuated. Minor attacks continued before the base was officially closed on 5 July. Marines remained around Hill 689, though, and fighting in the vicinity continued until 11 July until they were finally withdrawn, bringing the battle to a close.
In the aftermath, the North Vietnamese proclaimed a victory at Khe Sanh, while US forces claimed that they had withdrawn, as the base was no longer required. Historians have observed that the Battle of Khe Sanh may have distracted American and South Vietnamese attention from the buildup of Viet Cong (VC) forces in the south before the early 1968 Tet Offensive. Nevertheless, the US commander during the battle, General William Westmoreland, maintained that the true intention of Tet was to distract forces from Khe Sanh.
Tet Offensive - Wikipedia
The Tet Offensive of 1968 (Vietnamese: Sự kiện Tết Mậu Thân 1968), or officially called The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968 (Vietnamese: Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy, Tết Mậu Thân 1968) was a major escalation and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. It was launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the United States Armed Forces and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name is the truncated version of the Lunar New Year festival name in Vietnamese, Tết Nguyên Đán. However, tết only means "festival" in Vietnamese. "Tổng tiến công và nổi dậy, Tết Mậu Thân", literally translated to English, means "The General Offensive and Uprising, The Year of the Monkey".
Hanoi had launched the offensive in the belief that it would trigger a popular uprising leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Although the initial attacks stunned the allies, causing them to lose control of several cities temporarily, they quickly regrouped, beat back the attacks, and inflicted heavy casualties on PAVN/VC forces. The popular uprising anticipated by Hanoi never happened. During the Battle of Huế, intense fighting lasted for a month, resulting in the destruction of the city. During their occupation, the PAVN/VC executed thousands of people in the Massacre at Huế. Around the U.S. combat base at Khe Sanh, fighting continued for two more months.
The offensive was a military defeat for North Vietnam. However, this offensive had far reaching consequences due to its effect on the views of the Vietnam War by the American public. General Westmoreland reported that defeating the PAVN/VC would require 200,000 more American soldiers and activation of the reserves, prompting even loyal supporters of the war to see that the current war strategy required re-evaluation. The offensive had a strong effect on the U.S. government and shocked the U.S. public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the North Vietnamese were being defeated and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation; American public support for the war declined as a result of the Tet casualties and the ramping up of draft calls. Subsequently, the U.S. sought negotiations to end the war.
The term "Tet Offensive" usually refers to the January–February 1968 offensive, but it can also include the so-called "Mini-Tet" offensive that took place in May and the Phase III Offensive in August, or the 21 weeks of unusually intense combat which followed the initial attacks in January.
Battle of Kham Duc - Wikipedia
The Battle of Kham Duc was a major battle of the Vietnam War. The event occurred in Khâm Đức, now district capital of Khâm Đức District, then in Quảng Tín Province (now part of Quảng Nam Province, South Vietnam), from 10–12 May 1968. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) 2nd Division tried to capture Đà Nẵng, but they were defeated in the Battle of Lo Giang by elements of the U.S. 1st Marine Division and the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). PAVN General Chu Huy Mân disengaged from the fight on the outskirts of the city and pulled the 2nd Division into the mountains where it could rest, rebuild, and prepare for the next major operation. Khâm Đức, a small district in the north of Quảng Tín, was chosen as the next target for the 2nd Division. Following their defeat at Đà Nẵng, U.S. military intelligence agencies in I Corps Tactical Zone were confused by the movements of the 2nd Division, because they could not track down the unit.
During March and April, U.S. military intelligence began to detect elements of the PAVN 2nd Division moving towards Khâm Đức, but their opponent's true intentions were largely unknown. In response to what could be a major attack, General William Westmoreland reinforced the defenses of the Khâm Đức Special Forces by sending in U.S. Army engineers to upgrade the local airstrip for sustained use by large transport aircraft, as well as airlifting weapons and ammunition for the U.S.-led Detachment A-105. Australian-led 11th Mobile Strike Force (MSF) Company was ordered to take up positions in Ngok Tavak (Ngok Ta Vak), an outpost serving Khâm Đức, to boost allied intelligence-gathering capabilities in the area. However, unbeknownst to the U.S. and allied forces, the Viet Cong (VC) 1st Regiment had been watching the build-up around Khâm Đức and were preparing to initiate the assault by taking out Ngok Tavak.
In the early hours of 10 May, elements of the VC 1st Regiment attacked Ngok Tavak and overran much of the outpost. By dawn, the 11th MSF Company was devastated, but they later received reinforcements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company. Despite having received assurances that further reinforcements would arrive to relieve the outpost, the commander of the 11th MSF Company decided to evacuate his troops and move towards Khâm Đức. By that time, however, the PAVN had already turned their attention to the main target at Khâm Đức, and they only left behind some local force units to destroy allied reinforcements. Meanwhile, elements of the Americal Division had been airlifted into Khâm Đức as part of Operation Golden Valley, to bolster the strength of the Special Forces Camp there. On the morning of 11 May, the PAVN 2nd Division surrounded Khâm Đức, and they gradually forced U.S.-led forces into their bases after several outposts were overrun. Westmoreland then ordered Khâm Đức to be evacuated, so the 834th Air Division was told to make an all-out effort to extract all the people in Khâm Đức, both military and civilian. By the time the evacuation was completed, nine U.S. military aircraft had been shot down, including two C-130s. On 12 May, the PAVN were in complete control of Khâm Đức.
How America's AC-130 Gunships Wreaked Havoc on Vietnam
The “Gooney Bird” became the terror of the skies during the war.
by Warfare History Network
Off in the distance came the faint drone of a large propeller-driven aircraft. The sound got steadily louder, when suddenly a curtain of red fire erupted from the sky and rained down on the rice paddies in front of us. Puff! Puff, the Magic Dragon! When Puff unleashed that first six-second burst every man knew instantly what it was. The sound was indescribable, a deep guttural roar that anyone who has ever heard and lived, will always remember. Puff flew back and forth over the battlefield that night in 1967, dropping huge two million-candle-power parachute flares and occasionally lighting up the sky with his fiery red breath. When daylight began Puff’s, work was done. The drone of his huge engines faded into the distance and a deathly silence lingered over the battlefield. Nothing moved in the eerie glare of the last flare as it floated slowly to the earth.
The Evolution of Puff the Mighty Dragon
The mighty dragon Puff evolved from very humble beginnings. The predecessor of the first fixed-wing gunship used in Southeast Asia was the WWII twin-engine C-47 (DC-3) “Gooney Bird,” which was first brought to Vietnam as a transport and cargo ship in November 1961. Shortly after their arrival, many C-47s were outfitted as “flare ships” and designated FC-47 (“F” for flare) to drop huge parachute flares over enemy positions during night attacks. In November 1963, FC-47s flung more than seven thousand flares over enemy positions. Due to increased night activity by the Viet Cong (VC) in 1963, it soon became apparent that a better night air effort was necessary. After much deliberation, and because of the diligence and persistence of several young Air Force Officers, the modern concept of the fixed-wing gunship was accepted. The effectiveness of such a gunship was dependent upon its ability to direct concentrated fire on enemy positions in near proximity to friendly forces. The chosen craft also had to have enough power and cargo space to carry the necessary armament and heavy loads of ordnance. The flying maneuver that was necessary for this type of precision fire mission was to circle the enemy position in a tightly banked “pylon turn” while firing from side-mounted guns. This would allow the craft to sustain continuous fire on a relatively small area. A cargo or transport-type craft was needed for the huge amounts of munitions required, and it had to be propeller driven, because jet aircraft were much too fast for the precision maneuvers necessary. The C-47 was chosen as the test plane. The armament chosen for the gunships was the General Electric rotary-barreled M-134 machine gun, known as the “minigun,” which could fire either fifty or a hundred rounds of 7.62-mm ammunition per second. Initially three miniguns per ship would be fixed-mounted in a side-firing configuration. Positioning the aircraft at the proper altitude and angle was the only means of aiming the weapons. Using this armament, a C-47 flying at three thousand feet in a tight circle could place a bullet in every square yard of a football-field-sized area (five thousand square yards) in approximately 17 seconds.
Spooky and Puff
An Air Force team was dispatched to Bien Hoa Air Force Base outside Saigon in December 1964 to convert two C-47s into gunships for evaluation. The conversion was completed on the first ship in less than two weeks. Preliminary tests were run, and the gunship flew its first-day combat mission on December 14, 1964, firing on enemy sampans, trails, and staging areas. The gunship scored its first verified enemy kills on December 21, 1964, with 21 VC dead. The first night mission was flown on the night of December 23, over an outpost under attack near Thanh Yend. The ship fired more than 4,500 rounds of ammunition and dropped 17 flares, successfully halting the enemy assault on the outpost. By then, the two converted gunships had flown 16 combat and 7 training missions. In February 1965, a gunship was sent to Bong Son, killing a hundred VC. Another 150 or so VC are believed to have been killed in that action, but the survivors dragged away the bodies and a total body count was not possible. “Gooney Bird” was quickly evolving into “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The armored plane’s fame quickly spread throughout Vietnam. American GIs were comforted by its presence, and the enemy lived in mortal terror of it. Reports have it that, on occasion, just the sound of one of them flying overhead and the dropping of the first giant flare was enough to break off an enemy attack. The test of the new gunships was considered successful and the order was given to convert 20 C-47s into gunships. They were now to be designated AC-47 (“A” for attack) “Spooky” gunships. The conversions were to be carried out in the United States, and the planes flown to Vietnam upon completion.
SOS Arrives Near Saigon for Command Support
The 4th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (a k a SOS, “Special Operations Squadron”) arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, on November 14, 1965, with 16 combat gunships and four others for command support and attrition. Their mission was to respond with flares and firepower support of friendly positions under night attack, convoy escort, armed reconnaissance, close-air support, and interdiction. Although designated “Spooky” by the Air Force, the AC-47 was quickly nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon” by ground troops. In some areas even its official call sign was changed from “Spooky” to “Puff.” Anyone who has ever heard Puff fire those three miniguns knows the reason for the new name. The guttural roar made by the guns firing simultaneously could only come from a dragon—a terribly angry one. For the next four years, AC-47 gunships distinguished themselves in more than four thousand missions over South Vietnam and Laos. They accounted for at least 5,300 enemy killed, and hundreds of enemy trucks destroyed or damaged. Not a single hamlet or fort defended by Puff was ever overrun.AC-47 gunships operated out of bases throughout South Vietnam, including Nha Trang, Bien Thuy, Da Nang, and Pleiku. From November 1965 to December 1969, 53 of them expended over 97 million rounds of ammunition and dropped 270,000 flares. By 1969, the old AC-47s were beginning to wear out, and it was no longer feasible to keep rebuilding and maintaining them. On December 1, 1969, a lone AC-47 gunship flew its final mission in Vietnam under American command. The remaining ships were turned over to the South Vietnamese and Laotian Air Forces and continued to fight.