"The Men In The Boats"
Written by: Lt/General Johnnie Corns, US Army (Ret.),
Operations Officer, 2nd Brigade 1967-68
The mist of the morning cools and softens the air
As the last of the soldiers heads down the steel stair.
He crossed the barge tied alongside the ship
And boarded the craft, making sure not to slip.
The assault craft and boats are now well under way
Executing the plan which was briefed yesterday
The boats flow out smoothly, moving into the line
From the air their formation looks dark, serpentine.
Up the brown, muddy river they move with the tide
Some enjoying the scenery on this their first ride.
Others seem not to care, unaware of the beauty
Their thoughts are focused on performing their duty.
These are the veterans who have been here before
Who've lived through the fire fights, not anxious for more.
But should one occur, these brave men are good
Their valor and skill is well understood.
The likes of this force is seldom seen
They fight from the water and are called riverine
Grant used them at Vicksburg in the great Civil War
And the French proved the concept on the Red River shore.
When the power was combined of Army and Navy
The first thoughts generated were just short of cagey.
But these didn't prevail when it came to a fight
Both soldiers and sailors knew what was right.
Soldiers saw water like moats 'round a castle
An unwelcome obstacle when it came to a battle.
But sailors saw water like the Daytona track
A way to get in and a way to get back.
Attacks from the water were new to their foe
Who aimed at the highways where troops usually go.
But for riverine troopers, this was the way
To attack with surprise at the first light of day.
And this was the plan they would follow today
To spring their attack, the riverine way.
Some early doubts for the plan soon arose
When they learned they'd be running right by Snoopy's Nose
An elaborate plan that would probably work well
But for boat crews and platoons it was difficult to tell.
Artillery was firing, of this they'd been told
A battalion in choppers found the first LZ cold..
But what was that pounding on the side of the craft
Shaking the boat from forward to aft.
An antitank rocket had exploded top side
But in spite of hot shrapnel, the platoon has survived.
There's a monitor turning to a stream up ahead
No one at the wheel, the helmsman is dead.
The assault craft turns wildly , rams into the bank
A split-second decision before the craft sank.
The infantry platoon along with the crew
Scramble ashore where the artillery blew.
Their foe is retreating, crawling over a dike
That's getting chewed up by a boat's forty mike
There's plenty of action, new troops have their fill
The artillery's pounding, the jets screaming shrill.
The time is at hand, it's good against evil
Death goes ashore through cordite and diesel.
But the noise of the battle slowly passes away
There are men to be cared for, there's time now to pray.
The enemy is pursued by chopper and boat.
Medics work wonders with lumps in their throats
It seems like forever, but they're back on the ship
Some slightly wounded - broken finger, bruised hip.
But thoughts are of Willy who made them all laugh
And of Jose and Bob who did not make it back.
They laugh at Frank's letter that he got from back home
The candy from his wife has been missent to Nome.
The box will be forwarded, though mangled and tattered
But Frank didn't care, it's the letter that mattered.
They laughed and they joked and played lots of pranks
And made a few jokes about those with some rank.
And every face beamed as the brass just announced
It was a main force enemy that they had just trounced.
That kind of news would be in their letters
But what mattered most was they had fought even better.
There was a deep sense of pride when facing great danger
Of meeting a test, risking life for a stranger.
Most pictured the stranger as a small Asian child.
Who'd suffered so much in such a short while.
And the main thing, of course, that most of them feared
Was continuing to live being homeless and scared.
Many years have passed since the days of these battles
For each old Raider and Rat the memories still rattle.
A few of these warriors have even gone back
In search of something they feel that they lack.
Not to recall the carnage or view the rubble
But to see once again, those they helped when in trouble.
They're warmed by the smiles of kids three or four
But in the old U S A they have even more.
And the main experience that gives them a chill
Is to fly over the land, lush, green and now still.
To feel tears sting their eyes looking down at the moats
And feel their chests swell for the Men in the Boats.
Here's the story upon which the above poem was based:
THE RIVER OF DEATH
BY JOHN ALBRIGHT
“IN A MATTER OF SECONDS THE MUDDY WATERS OF THE RACH BAI RIVER TRANSFORMED FROM A POETIC TROPICAL SETTING INTO A BLAZING INFERNO
OF ROCKET, MACHINE GUN AND RIFLE FIRE FOR THE UNSUSPECTING TROOPS OF THE RIVERINE ARMADA”
The murmur of voices and the scrape of weapons against the sides of the steel ship penetrated the damp night as the men of the 3rd of the 60th Infantry, climbed from a barracks ship, the USS COLLETON, and into waiting armored troop carriers alongside, 15 September, 1967.
Within minutes after boarding the boats, most men slept. Late the previous day they had come back from a three day operation which, in one sharp, day long battle, nine of their comrades had fallen, along with sixty of the enemy. There had been time during the night to clean weapons, shower, eat a hot meal, and receive the new operations order, but not much time to sleep off the now familiar weariness after days of fighting both the Viet Cong and the mud of the Mekong Delta.
Three days before, Col. Bert David’s Mobile Riverine Force, the 2nd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, and its Navy counterpart, Task Force 117, had set out to search for and destroy the 514th Local Force and 263rd Main Force Viet Cong Battalions. When the enemy was finally found, the ensuing battle had only weakened, not destroyed, the Viet Cong Battalions, which broke off the fight and slipped away.
Thus, when intelligence reports that reached the Riverine Brigade’s headquarters on the afternoon of the 14 September place the Viet Cong in the Can Son Secret Zone along the Rach Ba Rai River, Col. David resolved to attack. Quickly he pulled his units back from the field and into their bases to prepare for a jump-off the next morning. For the 3/60, that meant a return to the USS Colleton anchored in the wide Mekong River near the Mobile Riverine Force’s base camp at Dong Tam.
Col. David planned to trap the VC in their reported positions along the river, a narrow river that flows from the north into the Mekong. About ten kilometers north of its confluence with the Mekong, the river bends sharply to the west for two kilometers, then turns abruptly east for two more before returning to a north-south direction. This bend in the river produces a salient of land that juts out to the west, washed on two sides by the river. It was here that the enemy had been reported.
North of the bend, Col. David planned to emplace the 3/60 as a blocking force, but to get to its assigned positions the 3/60, in Riverine Force boats, would have to sail past the suspected enemy positions. South of the bend, Col. David planned to deploy another blocking force, the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry. This battalion, also in Riverine Force boats, was to follow the lead unit, the 3/60. Together the two battalions would close in on the enemy from the north and south. Once the two infantry battalions had gone ashore, the Navy crews were to employ the empty boats as a blocking force. The monitors, gunboats with 20mm and 40 mm guns and 81mm direct fire mortars, would reinforce the troop carriers.
While these forces to the north, south, and west formed an anvil, the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry were advancing overland from the east in armored personnel carriers, would act as a hammer. Other forces could be airlifted into the combat area if needed. Once the enemy troops were trapped, Col. David planned to destroy them with air strikes and the brigade’s three batteries of artillery. The two infantry battalions and the mechanized battalion could then move in and finish the job, any VC escaping across the river, through the patrolling Navy forces might be intercepted by the South Vietnamese 44th Rangers, operating on an independent mission west of the river.
The commander of the 3/60, LT. Col. Mercer Doty, planned to put two of his three companies ashore at the start, Company B on Beach White One and Company A 1000 meters to the west on Beach White Two. Both units were to land at 0800. Company C of the 5th/60th was to stay on the boats as a brigade reserve. Traveling in three ATCs, each company was to be reinforced by an engineer squad, a welcome addition since all companies were under strength.
At 0415 the naval convoy transporting the 3/60, moved out into the Mekong River preceded by two empty ATCs acting as minesweepers. A monitor gunboat lead each of the three groups of armored troop carriers. Interspersed in the column were a helicopter deck medical aid boat and a command and communications boat. The latter, itself a monitor lacking only the 81 mm mortar, carried Col. Doty’s staff.
Doty, himself circled overhead in his command and control chopper. Beside him rode Capt. Wayne Jordan, an artillery liaison officer and observer. Lt. Cmdr. F.E. “Dusty” Rhodes Jr. USN, commanded the boats. Behind the 3/60, moved the 3/47, in basically the same convoy formation.
As the boats churned through the Mekong River toward the entrance of the Rach Ba Rai, most of the riflemen slept while the Navy crews manned the guns. On the battalion radio net, routine communications traffic and last minute planning and co-ordination passed between stations. Among the decision was to hit Beach White Two at 0730 with a five-minute artillery preparation, followed by another five minutes’ shelling of Beach White One. With only three batteries of artillery available, effective fire could not be laid on both beaches at the same time.
At 0700 the convoy entered the river and headed north., up the narrow channel. Helmets off, flak jackets unzipped, some of the men lay on the troop compartment deck asleep; others rested against the bulkheads, smoking and talking low. On a hunch that the men Should be alert, one leader in Company B woke his weapons squad just as the convoy entered the little river. Fifty feet apart, the boats proceeded in a single file, moving about 8 miles an hour through the mist of the new morning. Passing a hairpin bend in the river appropriately called “Snoopy’s Nose” without incident, they reached the point where the river turns west and began to pass the Red Beaches that were to be assaulted by the southern blocking force.
The first morning that something might be amiss came just before 0730. A few rounds of enemy small arms fire kicked up little geysers in the water as the leading boats were nearing the salient land that was the objective. Then precisely at 0730, the sound of an exploding anti-tank rock split the morning calm, followed almost instantly was a second blast. Minesweeper tango 91-4 reeled from the shock of both rockets exploding against its starboard bow. The radios’ in the boats crackled with the minesweepers report, “we have been mined”. Another boat reported recoilless rifle fire. Through the din came the unmistakable sound of AK47 and assault rifle and of machine guns.
Radios in the boats came alive with reports. A monitor called, I’m hit, I hit a mine!” Then came another voice—“Somebody’s fired a rocket!” Recoilless rifles and rockets, both the RPG-2 and the newer, deadlier RPG7, slammed into minesweeper, monitors, and troop laden tango boats. The roar of dozens of Navy guns joined the roar of enemy fire, and as boat after boat entered the ambush and brought more weapons into the fray, 20 mm and 40 mm automatic guns and 81 mm mortars firing point-blank added to the din. Smoke mixed with the morning mist until it became thick, like heavy fog.
Within the first minute, the other tango that was serving as a minesweeper, T-91-1, took a hit from an RPG2. In the next 7 minutes, T-91-1 took four more rockets and wounded 8 of its crew. Although ordered to the rear, the boat remained in the battle. From the Navy radios came a message from Cmdr. Rhodes: “Fire all weapons.” Those boats that had refrained from firing their far-ricocheting .50 caliber machine guns brought the guns to bear. With their peculiar measured roar, the fifties joined in battle.
As the fighting continued, automatic fire beat against the hulls, some of it coming from bunkers no more than two feet from the waterline. For all the counter fire from the boats, anti-tank rockets and recoilless rifle rounds kept pouring from mud bunkers on either bank. The heaviest fire came from the east, from the area where the intel reports had placed the Viet Cong. Firing a string of explosive 40 mm rounds into the aperture of one bunker on the east bank, a Navy gunner blew the top off the fortification and silenced it. Although most enemy positions were within five meters of the water and formed a killing zone of 1,500meters long, few of the Army troops saw much more of the enemy than his gun flashes. As the line of boats moved deeper into the ambush, the intensity of the fight grew. Some boats slowed while others speeded up, but all poured fire from every operable gun. As fast as they could, the gunners fired, reloaded and fired again. After only a few minutes of letting the Navy do the fighting, the troops joined in with M-79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and M16 rifles. The men climbed, crawled, or ran to firing positions, while officers saw to it that machine gunners and M-79 grenadiers got the better locations.
In the first flush of enemy engagement, many of the Navy weapons momentarily fell silent, their crews wounded or killed. Acting sometimes under company officers, but in most cases on their own, soldiers took over Navy guns so that few weapons went long unused, even though casualties constantly mounted .
Commanding the 3rd platoon of Bravo Company, 3rd of the 60th, 1st lt. Peter M. Rogers saw six of his men hit in the first few seconds, Many of the Navy crewman of Rogers’ boat were hit and riflemen took their places. When the company commander, Capt. Wilbert Davis, took hold of a Navy machine gun to fire. One of his platoon sergeants moved in to relieve him, only to take an enemy bullet in the chest. As he fell to the deck another soldier quickly took the gun.
Running from the main deck to the gun turret in search of a better view of enemy position, Capt. Gregg Orth, commander, Company A 3/60, took over an unmanned machine and opened fire. When the gun malfunctioned, he ran below decks, found a machine gunner and sent him to fix it. Just then, he noted that two Navy machine at the bow had quit firing. Surmising that they had malfunctioned, he sent two machine gunners to remove the Navy weapons and replace them with two of the company’s M60s.
Sgt. John White of Company B, 3/60, spotted a man in a tree, turned to a nearby machine gunner telling him there was a sniper in the tree. The gunner fired a long burst from his M60 and set the tree ablaze. As the two men scanned the area for another target, the blast from an exploding rocket knocked both of them down, but seconds later were on their feet and firing.
So fast and sustained was the fire from the American weapons that at least two M60 machine gun barrels burned out. To help the m-79 gunners, other soldiers knelt by the bow, ripping open cases of ammunition. On one boat alone, three gunners disposed of three cases of ammunition in twenty minutes. With only sporadic breaks the battle continued. Round after round struck both troop carriers and monitors. The boats veered right and left in the narrow channel, some jockeying for position, some temporarily out of control as coxswains were wounded. The blast from a rocket explosion knocked one boat commander off his feet and under a 50 cal. Gun tub. Although stunned, he made it back to the wheel a minute later, but in the mean time the boat had careened dangerously.
Three minutes after the fight started a monitor, M112-2, took two RPG2 rounds, one in the cockpit that shot away the steering mechanism. The boat captain managed to beach the monitor while crewman worked frantically to repair the damage. The job done quickly, M112-1 lunged again into midstream. At the same time the monitor was hit, the command and communications boat took two anti-tank rockets on the port 40mm gun mount. Although the rounds did no damage, they served to acquaint the battalion staff fully the nature of the situation. A few minutes later, the command boat took another hit. This round knocked Commander Rhodes unconscious, but a few seconds later he was back on his feet.
To the men in the troop carriers it appeared that the VC were trying to hit the frames holding the canvas sun cover over the troop compartment and rain down fragments on the closely bunched men below. Most of the rounds seemed to be aimed that way sailed harmlessly over the boats, for such shooting demanded the best marksmanship or incredible luck. The few rockets that struck the metal frames wounded scores of men, in one case killing one and wounding every other man in a platoon of Company B.
However fierce the enemy fire the Army and Navy radios went on operating. Amid messages asking for the medical aid boat and questions as to were their any friendlies were ashore, fragmentary reports on the battle flashed back to command and communications boat and from there back to brigade headquarters. Word of the ambush had reached the brigades operation officer Major Johnnie Corns, who was monitoring the progress of the convoy, about three minutes after the fight began. The first report had it that two of the boats were on fire. With the concurrence of the brigade commander, Col. David, Major Corns directed the 3/47 that they be prepared to assume the mission of Col. Doty’s battalion—landing on Beach White One and Two. If that turned out to be necessary, the 3/60 would land south of the bend, close to the beaches previously given the name of beach Red One and Two. Flying above the action, the commander of the 3/60 also listened to the first reports of the fighting. His first reaction was a wry satisfaction that at least the enemy was where they had expected them to be. It was all the more important now, Doty believed, to proceed with the operation as planned, to run the gauntlet and get the me ashore on Beach White One and Two Artillery observers flying overhead in spotter aircraft called in fire on the VC positions minutes after the first enemy round crashed into the lead minesweeper. Two batteries of 105 mm howitzers, B battery and C battery of the 34th Artillery fired from support positions south of the battle site while Battery A, 1st Battalion, 27 Artillery, reinforced their fires from a support base to the northeast. Although they cut down the volume of enemy fire, three batteries could not cope with all the enemy fire coming from an ambush over 1,500 meters long. The 105’s could deal effectively with spider holes and other open enemy positions, but a direct hit from a piece as heavy as 155 was needed to knock out a bunker.
At 0735, Monitor 111-3 was hit by two RPG2s. The first knocked out the main gun, the 40mm encased in a turret, killing the Navy gunman and wounding two others. The second wounded three more crewman. Two minutes later a third anti-tank rocket smashed into the 81mm mortar pit, wounding two marines and a sailor, but the monitor stayed in the battle. Elsewhere many of the direct hits by RPG2s did little damage. Each of the boats carrying Capt. Richard Botelho’s Company C, for example took at least one rocket hit, but no Army or Navy personnel were injured. He was grateful for the fact that the VC were lousy shots. Few of the thousands of enemy bullets pierced the armor of the boats. On the other hand, few of the American rounds were able to penetrate the enemy's bunkers. The Navy’s 81 mm mortar shells and 40 mm high explosive rounds would knock out enemy bunkers only when they passed through firing slits. Yet however ineffective in killing the foe, each side maintained a steady fire, for one side to lessen the volume was to give the other side an opportunity to aim more precisely and bring all weapons to bear. So close were some of the enemy’s positions to the waterline that some of the Navy’s guns were unable to depress low enough to hit them. Only when the men on the boats were able to catch the VC popping up from their spider holes or from behind mounds of earth could they deal with them effectively.
Within five to ten minutes after the ambush was sprung, the forward motion of the convoy ceased, but individual boats darted back and forth, continually passing each other, some keeping to midstream, others making passes toward the bank before veering off, their machine guns and heavy weapons in action all the while. One boat sped past the momentarily crippled Monitor 113-3, possibly trying to protect it. Just beyond the monitor, the boat shuddered under the blows of four or five rockets, but its fire never stopped. Another monitor, temporarily out of control, brushed the east bank but moments later swung back into midstream and back into the fight.
Col. Doty was still convinced that his troops could break through the ambush and land according to plan. He saw that the channel was filled with twisting, weaving boats, was laced with fire. And was far too narrow to pass the 3/47 through while the fight was on. Then as Doty watched, a single boat broke out of the killing zone and headed toward the White Beaches. Encouraged by this breakthrough, he ordered his S-3 to send in the troops. As B Company 3/60 made its dash for the beach, Col. Doty decided to make the run with him.
At this point the boat took a rocket hit on the Boston Whaler lashed to its deck. The little skiff shattered, but its outboard motor soared high in the air, and, as Doty followed its course, plummeted into the river, where it landed with a mighty splash. By the time S-3 acknowledged the call and relayed the order to the lead company commander, B Co. commander Capt. Davis could reply ”Roger, I have element ashore now, waiting for the rest.” For all the intensity of enemy fire B co. 3/60 command group and one platoon had broken through. The rest of the boats, nevertheless, remained embroiled in the fight. At 0745, Monitor 111-3 took an RPG2 round on its port side that burned a hole completely through the armor and wounded one man. At about the same time, Tango 111-6 reeled under the impact of two anti-tank rounds but no one was hurt and the boat’s fire continued unabated. A third round hit the .50 caliber mount a minute later, killing a Navy crewman and wounding five more. At this point Cmdr. Rhodes decided that the fire was too heavy and the danger of mines (now that the minesweepers were partially disabled) was just too great to justify continuing to run the gauntlet. In fact, Navy Riverine standard operating procedure required that troop carriers, be preceded by mine sweepers. Moreover, he urgently needed replacement crews. At 0750, twenty minutes after the battle began, Rhodes therefore ordered all boats to turn back. They were to assemble downstream in the vicinity on the Red Beaches on the south side of the bend.
The withdrawal, under intense fire, began immediately. All the while artillery rained on the enemy and the boats continued their fire as long as they remained in range. Four Air Force A-37s, earlier scheduled to strike the White Beaches under the original plan, roared in to put bombs and napalm on the VC positions. The enemy also continued to fire; in one case two rockets came so close to the RC-292 antennas on the command and communications boat that the rocket fins severed the lead-in wires. One by one, the boats broke out of the killing zone and headed for Beach Red Two. There the aid boat became a magnet as all boat commanders concentrated on getting help for their wounded.
Until the Navy task group commander ordered the withdrawal, Col. Doty and his S-3 had continued to urge the remainder of Company B to pass through the ambush and join Capt. Davis and his single platoon at Beach White One. At 0802, when Doty heard of the withdrawal order, he had no choice but to comply. He ordered Davis and his little band on the beach to re-embark and run the gauntlet in reverse. Engaged by the enemy on the beach, Captain Davis and the platoon began to withdraw a few yards at a time. Putting up heavy fire to the front, they ran in twos and threes back to Tango 111-6. When all were safely on board, Davis called the battalion S-3 and reported laconically, “we’re coming back now.” Raising the ramp, the boat captain backed into the stream, brought the bow around slowly, and, gunning the engines to full speed, called out to Davis. “I will get you through Captain.” Riding with the current. The craft began to run the gauntlet, a lone boat with about thirty men, proceeding again through the fire of the Viet Cong. Rockets and bullets rained on the boat, but only one struck a telling blow. The craft was halfway through when a rocket hit the port .50 cal. Mount. One sailor fell, killed instantly, and Four of his comrades were wounded. But from that point the troop carrier made it safely back to the Red Beach assembly area. At Red Beach Capt. James Bledsoe, the battalions S-4, who rode with the command group, was organizing re-supply and medical evacuation for the wounded. An occasional sniper round whizzed though the area, though without effect, as boat after boat made its way to transfer the few dead and many wounded to the aid boat. There the battalion chaplain, Capt. James Johnson, and the surgeon, Capt. Charles Hughes, ministered to the wounded. Minor fires burned on two boats, one in a box of equipment,
the other in a Boston whaler. As the crews fought the fires, other boats came alongside to assist. Thanks to Bledsoe’s efforts, by 0844 medical evacuation helicopters began to land on the deck of the aid boat to take the seriously wounded back to the base hospital at Dong Tam. Of the scores wounded, only twenty-four required evacuation.
Boats carrying platoons of the same company began to gather together. Platoon leaders scrambled into the company headquarters boats to brief their commanders, while the men worked to redistribute ammunition, replace damaged machine gun barrels, and radio back to the Mobile Riverine base for re-supply by helicopter. Calling back to Navy headquarters, Cmdr. Rhodes requested two minesweepers and a monitor from the force transporting the 3/47 (now halted a few thousand meters downstream) to replace his three most badly damaged boats. Every one of his and mine sweepers. Rhodes reported had been hit.
His troops out of the ambush and reorganized smoothly, Doty directed his helicopter to a nearby fire support base to refuel. While on the ground, he conferred with Brig. Gen. William Fulton, one of the assistant 9th infantry division commanders. Getting ashore on the White Beaches, Fulton said, was the most critical element of the plan. Col. Doty was confident that the boats with his men aboard could get past the VC and go ashore. Returning to the air, Doty radioed the brigade commander, recommended that the battalion try again to get through. Col. David agreed and ordered Doty to try it as soon as the Navy group was ready.
Re-supply of boats and men meanwhile proceeded swiftly. At 0900, two replacement mine sweepers and a replacement monitor had arrived among the boats transporting the 3/47 infantry. The boats also brought replacements for many of the Navy wounded, so that the Navy crews were close to full strength.
For the second attempt to run the gauntlet and get ashore on the White Beaches, Col. Doty directed that Capt. Bothelo’s Company C, 3/47 replace Davis’s Company B, 3/60, which as lead company had been hit the hardest in the first try. Company B, 3/60 would serve as the brigades ready reaction force. To support the fresh effort, a light fire team of two armed helicopters arrived overhead. Doty arranged for the artillery to begin firing as the task force neared the southern edge of the ambush zone and then walk its fire up both banks of the river just ahead of the boats as the convoy sailed northward. Both soldiers and sailors were to reconn0iter by fire against the banks, but because American troops were moving overland from the east, the 20mm and 40mm guns and .50 cal. Machine guns were to be used only against the west bank. While the boats were still forming for the second try, the first of sixteen air strikes were ordered for the rest of the operation began. Three F-4C phantoms came to drop bombs and napalm on the ambush zone, a hundred meters in from the east bank. Just after 1000 the second attempt to run through the enemy force began. This time no element of surprise existed for either side; the battle would be settled by fire power alone. But the Americans now possessed considerably more firepower. In addition to the three batteries of artillery walking shells up the banks, the helicopter guns hips and the jets would add their fire. Their combined fires were expected to keep the enemy from effectively engaging the passing boats.
The convoy entered the ambush zone with every weapon in action, aided by the helicopters and artillery. Yet again the enemy opened fire, and the fight raged all along the ambush line. If any of the VC had withdrawn it failed to show in the volume of firepower. From the earth covered bunkers, heavy weapons fire poured onto the boats, but they kept moving up the river. As in the earlier run, one of the two mine sweepers was hit first: T-91-3 took two rockets, one in the coxswains’ flat, one on the port .50 cal. mount. Then a tango boat was hit and five of the replacement crew were wounded. Again a small boat atop the troop carrier caught fire. Although the other mine sweeper was hit seven times by rockets, only three of the crew were wounded. Rocket after rocket passed inches over the tops of the crew compartments of the tangos, the men inside certain that the VC gunners were trying again to explode their rockets so that they would scatter deadly fragments into the troop compartments. Again, in one case, they succeeded.
A rocket detonated against the starboard canopy of Tango 111-10, spewing fragments on the men below. Two Navy crewman and eighteen soldiers were wounded. Miraculously, only one soldier died. In one blow Company A, 3/47, 3rd Platoon was struck down; only five men of the platoon would leave the boat to fight on the beach.
The first boats reached White Beach Two and the Navy crews were soon nosing their crafts against the muddy banks. As they dropped their ramps, the men of Companies A and C, 3/47 dashed ashore, followed by Company B, 3/60 as the brigade commander released the company from its role of reserve. Hardly had the men landed and a few feet in from the river when fire from individual VC riflemen began to fall among them, punctuated at a few points by automatic rifle fire. The troops returned the fire, relying chiefly on M-79 grenade launchers with canister ammunition. As the men hugged the ground, artillery shells fell ahead of them, stopping only when three F-100s roared in to drop bombs and napalm a short distance in front. Then a second flight followed to drop bombs and strafe with 20 mm guns. Once the aircraft had finished their run, artillery quickly returned to the fight.
The three company commanders meanwhile checked by radio to determine the losses incurred in running upriver. Company B 3/60 had made the passes with only a few slightly wounded, this was the same for Company C, 3/47. Company A, 3/47 was the hardest hit, had lost 18 wounded in one platoon alone, Captain Orth expressed doubt to Col. Doty that his command could accomplish the mission. Doty replied: “You haven’t much choice, you’ve got to continue on.” Orth answered : “We’re moving out.”
The biggest problems the troops on shore faced at the moment was a lack of visibility. They could see neither the enemy that occasionally taunted them with fire nor many of their own number, for soon after leaving the river bank they were swallowed up by dense scrub jungle. The thick foliage also prevented supporting fire from those Navy boats that stayed behind from the mission of patrolling the river in order to aid the ground troops. Although the companies were within 150 meters of each other, an hour passed before all three had established physical contact. Meanwhile, the companies cleared drop zones to facilitate aerial supply and evacuation of the wounded.
Overhead, Col. Doty observed artillery fire, coordinated air strikes, and assisted his companies in linking up. Around noon, as the companies at last had established contact, he received a message from brigade headquarters directing a change in mission. Instead as serving as a blocking force while the 5/60 moved overland from the east, the 3/60 was to drive south, while the 3/47pushed north. The 5/60 mission to push to the west was remained, but the battalion was to be augmented by the 2/60, brought in by helicopter. Thus four battalions would press against the enemy from three sides. About 200 meters from the river, the men at last emerged into more open terrain, Company C on the left in a field of high grass and cane and Company A on the right in a dry rice paddy. Yet leaving the jungle behind was a mixed blessing, for the enemy immediately raked the fields with small arms and automatic weapons fire. As soon as the men hit the ground, few had any idea where the enemy was hidden. Most were content to hold their fire while forward observers with the company commanders called in support. The artillery did the job. When the fire stopped the companies resumed their advance. Company A and B could see each other now, Company C was still lost from view. Passing through a wood line that had only moments before sheltered the enemy, Company A’s forward observer saw three VC run into a cluster of huts. As the infantrymen fired M79s against the huts, the forward observer called in artillery. At about the same time Spec. $ David Hershberger a machine gunner in Company A, spotted one of the VC, brought his heavy weapon to his shoulder, and dropped the enemy with a short burst. When a second enemy soldier ran toward his downed partner, Hershberger grabbed an M-14 from a sniper trained rifleman and dropped the second man with one round at about 250 meters. Slowly, for much of the rest of the afternoon, the southward advance continued. From time to time enemy fire increased sharply, forcing the infantry to cover, but air strikes, artillery, and the riflemen’s sheer determination to move ahead kept the advance going. As the afternoon waned, the battalion was nevertheless only about 500 meters south of Beach White Two. When at 1700 Col. Doty reported to brigade that his units were heavily engaged, Col. David deemed it better to risk the VC escaping the area than to have the troops face the night disorganized. He instructed Col. Doty to break contact and pull back into a night defensive perimeter. Leaving patrols behind to cover the withdrawal. The companies pulled back to a position near Beach White Two, in the process eliminating by passed snipers as they went. By late afternoon the companies had linked in a semicircular night defensive position with the river and the Navy boats at their backs. Capt. Davis of B Co, being the senior company commander took charge. As darkness fell, even sporadic sniper fire ceased. Through the night the command stood at 50%
alert, a Spooky flare and gunship overhead kept the area constantly illuminated and artillery dropped on suspected enemy locations. The enemy made no effort to penetrate the perimeter, and the next morning the reason became apparent. He was less interested in fighting than in slipping out of the closing trap.
That many of the VC succeeded in escaping became clear as patrols of converging battalions, moving only against infrequent rifle fire, established contact. The rest of the morning the men checked approximately 250 enemy bunkers, discovered 79 enemy bodies, victims of small arms fire, artillery, and air strikes. Presumably, many more of the enemy had been wounded. The American forces all four battalions and Navy crews. Had a total of 7 killed. But the fighting had exacted a toll of 123 wounded. Many had not required evacuation, however. Four of the enemy were detained, and one surrendered under the open arms program, using a safe conduct pass picked up in the area.
From the first shot of the ambush, the fighting had been almost continuous, and much of the time, heavy. Both sides had been hurt, the 263rd Main Force VC Battalion by far the worst. Though it had left the field badly mauled, it was by no means destroyed.
The 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, the U.S Navy Task Force 117, and the 263rd VC Battalion Would meet again.