The Battle of Ben Het - May 1972
|"The photo is of the PT-76 that got hung up in our wire on 9 May and churned itself into the ground, and that I tried to blow up with a LAW. I'm sitting on the gun tube, my buddy Bob Sparks is sitting on the turret, and the three NVA crew, along with a few of their infantry buddies, are taking a dirt nap on the far side of the tank."|
I promise, I won't get too involved. Some of the corrections are minor, some major. And some are even funnier than reported. For example, I have copies of MR II daily reports for the period that state the attacking NVA (66th NVA Regiment for sure, and quite possibly one other regiment, as well) sent dogs ahead to set off mines and show them the way through our wire. Well, yes and no. You see, the NVA had no dogs at Ben Het; but we did. We had a scroungy, but very nimble, Montagnard mutt named Dumbshit that had the habit of wandering off of an evening and picking his way through our wire and mines to do whatever it is scroungy Montagnard mutts did at night. It was a great show to watch as he adroitly sidestepped all the lethal devices we had implanted to stop an attacking enemy and disappeared into the tall grass outside the perimeter. We think he was getting laid, we weren't, and we were jealous.
Anyway, we suspect that during the dark hours on the morning of 9 May, 1972, Dumbshit was returning from one of his nightly romps and the NVA simply followed him, and some of our Montagnards saw him coming back through the perimeter just as the NVA opened fire, and later reported the dog story. We never gave voice to our suspicions at the time that it was our very own Dumbshit, and just let that "sleeping dog" lie. (Pun intended)
The one detail that really bothers Bob Sparks and I, though, is the report that Hawks Claw saved us from the attacking NVA tanks by swooping in, in the nick of time, and destroying "several" of the PT-76's the NVA were using. There is absolutely no truth to that report. Though we never did get an accurate count on the exact number of tanks the NVA used, we think at least a company, about 10 tanks, were in the initial assault. When the NVA opened fire on us that morning, the first thing we did was get on the radio and yell for help (we weren't that proud). Spectre 02, bless his dear heart, answered our call, was 10 minutes away and immediately turned in our direction. When Spectre arrived overhead, he already had some of the tanks picked out. One burst of his 40mm flamed a tank on the road to our northeast--about 200 meters outside the perimeter. Another burst disabled a tank about to roll through our main gate. Now this poor sucker at the gate got tagged seven ways to Sunday. Even though he was disabled, the tank continued to roll forward and struck an anti-tank mine that blew off his left track.
Now stationary, a Montagnard soldier dashed out of a bunker and put an M-72 LAW into him. Hit three times already, one of our damaged 155mm howitzers fired a bore-sighted HE round at him from less then 100 meters away and he burst into flames. We also accounted for one other tank right on our northeastern perimeter that I like to think I scared to death. The tank bogged down in soft ground, with miles of barbed wire and engineer stakes wound in his tracks. Try as he might, he just kept grinding in deeper. I took a LAW, crawled up to one of our partially destroyed perimeter bunkers and tried to knock him out from about 25 ft away, but the damned rocket wouldn't go off. I was desparately trying to remember my basic LAW misfire training when the tank picked me up on his co-ax machinegun and let loose a couple of bursts, and I ducked back into the bunker to ponder what to do next. Then, sneaking a peek outside the bunker, I saw the tank's hatch fly open and out tumbled the three-man crew, who were immediately shot. The only thing I can figure is the crew thought I'd go find a LAW that worked and try again, so they bailed out of the mired but undamaged tank, leaving the engine running. So, I scared it to death, sort of. Scratch three tanks. And this was by about 0530, just at first light.
Now, so as not to leave Hawks Claw out entirely, I will admit they showed up about 1000, announcing themselves as "Claw." (We didn't have a clue who these guys were). They declared they had tank killing ordnance on board, but before we could tell them we were fresh out of targets for the moment, the pilot yelled out "There's a tank at your main gate!" (Dead for about 4 hours, the tank had stopped burning by now). Well, Claw rolled in before we could stop him and made a beautiful first round hit on the tank, which politely starting burning again. Now, that's the fifth hit on that hapless tank. We tried to tell Claw the tank had been dead for hours, but they wouldn't believe us. After a few more passes over and around Ben Het without finding any more tanks, we thanked them for their assistance and they flew away, and we never saw them again. One last statement on the NVA tanks--during the night of 9 May, NVA sappers snuck up to the dead tank at the main gate and blew its turret off. That's six hits. Go figure.
Finally, I have to reinforce what Bill Reeder passed on to you. We saw him get shot down right in front of us, about 400 meters from our TOC/command bunker. Bill's Cobra, and another, were flying escort for a slick carrying an emergency resupply of LAW's for Ben Het. The last words we heard from Bill were "Panther going down! Panther going down!" Bill's gunship hit the ground just the other side of our runway, bounced once and burst into flames. As Bob Sparks and I watched helplessly, the canopy popped open and his co-pilot, Tim Conry, tumbled out. Tim tried to get back to the aircraft to help Bill, but the heat was just too intense, and Tim limped away, obviously in great pain, out of sight into the tall grass. Through binoculars, Bob and I could see Bill's foot caught on something and he was hanging head down from the cockpit, directly over the flames. For long, agonizing moments, Bill was also square in my M-16 sights--I was not about to let him burn alive. I had taken the slack out of the trigger when a swirl of smoke obscured Bill and the top of the Cobra, and I held my shot. A few seconds later, the Cobra exploded. For about an hour, until a Covey FAC picked up two mirror signals a couple hundred yards apart in the grass, we assumed Bill had been killed in the explosion. I was saddened at his apparent loss, but immensely relieved that I didn't have to shoot him. I'm sure Bill concurs. In those few seconds I hesitated pulling the trigger, Bill obviously freed himself and rolled away from the aircraft. Regardless, Bill would have been in no condition to run anywhere--we were surprised he had been able to move at all based on what we had observed. And I remember it like it was yesterday. To his great credit, the slick pilot successfully delivered the desperately needed LAW's, then immediately went in to try and get the gunship pilots out. Unfortunately, he was driven off by very, very heavy fire. (The NVA fire directed at the slick was at such a low angle that we actually had AAA impacting around us in camp). The rescue effort mounted later at dusk to pick up Bill and Tim was nothing less than miraculous. I've never seen such well coordinated, gutsy flying, in the teeth of very intense ground fire. But as you already know, though Tim was picked up, he died enroute to Pleiku, and Bill was not found.
I could go on and on, like about reporting to Colonel Kaplan (senior advisor to the ARVN 22nd Division at Tan Canh) in early April, 1972 that we could hear tank motors moving around Ben Het in the jungle at night and Kaplan not believing us. Tan Canh was overrun on 23 April by--tank led infantry.
Or about the ill fated/ill advised tank counter attack from Ben Het--Ben Het had 12 M-41's outposted there at the time--towards Dak To. They were neatly ambushed by the NVA and only 3 managed to escape back to Ben Het.
Or about what it was like to sit on a bulls-eye for three weeks while the NVA pounded Ben Het with over 5,000 mortar, artillery and rockets rounds, and not being able to shoot back.
Or hearing on the radio the last words of the doomed Vietnamese commander at Polei Kleng after his plea to be extracted was refused, after the American advisor team there had been previously evacuated at their request. I recall his reply to the refusal, after a long pause, was "Fuck you!" (Funny, no one ever asked Bob and me if we wanted to be extracted, and we never asked.)
Or of using Spectre's searchlight, beamed on the ground, to direct his cannon fire; of soaking-wet powder bags being fired like canister from a nearly disabled 155mm; calling napalm in on our own bunker line; or requesting that B-52's be employed like tac-air, and getting it; or of the hand-to-hand fighting to regain control of the camp; or, of course, the antics of Dumbshit the Wonder Dog, who for a week after the fight had the maddening habit of poking around the perimeter at night and bringing back to our bunker odd bits and pieces of NVA he had found in the minefield; and a dozen other tales--but the hour is late and I promised to be brief.
From your picture, I get the feeling that we might have met. Did you ever stop in at Ben Het for a quick beer and lunch in March, April, May or June of 1972? Or since you list Sage Street (was that Vann's call sign?) under your picture, did you ever fly the good Mr. John Paul Vann into our lonely corner of the wilderness? I sure hope your weren't the unlucky pilot who, having already taken off from Ben Het under artillery fire in early May, 72, had to return so Vann could search our chopper pad, still under artillery fire, for his missing sunglasses--I was the unlucky advisor, with the wet trousers, who was helping him look. Thirty years later, I still use that story as an ice breaker each fall for my new C&GSC students.
Again, tremendous job. Take care and enjoy the day.
Mark Truhan in Vermont, LTC Armor, USAR (Still serving)
Mark Truhan <email@example.com>
USA - Monday, September 16, 2002 at 20:48:19 (PDT)