THE BATTLE FOR KONTUM CITY
May 14th: On the morning of May 14th, the Battle of Kontum City began. The enemy fired numerous 122mm rockets and artillery rounds into the city. Many of the artillery rounds were being fired from captured ARVN weapons lost at Tan Canh and from other ARVN bases. At approximately 0530 hours, five tanks and an estimated two battalions of infantry attacked from the northwest. One of the tanks broke through the perimeter and attempted to crush a bunker. An ARVN soldier using an M - 72 LAW, put this tank out of action. Hawk's Claw had been launched from Camp Holloway and was on station over the battle area by 0650. The sky was overcast which prevented TACAIR from providing close air support. At the time the Hawk's Claw aircraft arrived on station two tanks were observed withdrawing toward the northwest. One of them just entered a ford across a small stream, and the other one was immediately behind it. Hawk's Claw first engaged the tank in the stream. The first missile hit this tank, and the second tank was hit moments later by the second missile. Both tanks burst into flames and exploded. The entire engagement took about five minutes. A VNAF FAC directed accurate artillery fire on the attacking enemy troops, and they started to withdraw under this intense fire. The attack was over by 0900 hours. The burning tank hulks were a welcome sight for both the U.S. advisors and the ARVN troops. This first attack appeared to be more a probe than a full attack. A captured enemy tank driver stated that he was told that they would not meet much resistance. The NVA had probably thought the ARVN troops would break and run like they did at Tan Canh.
The enemy continued his rocket and artillery attacks on Kontum City and the airfield throughout the day. Aircraft fuel was stored in large, rubberized containers called blivots. One of these blivots containing JP-4 fuel at the airfield was set ablaze by an incoming shell; however, the fire was extinguished before it completely destroyed the POL facility. The ground attack resumed at 1700 when friendly elements were reported in heavy contact on the northern perimeter. This attack was beaten off before nightfall. Thus ended the first day of attacks on the city itself. The Hawk's Claw was both an effective tank-killer, and an effective psychological weapon. Beyond just stopping individual tanks, its presence helped to calm the same kind of panic that the NVA tanks had created at Tan Canh. Mr. Vann was over the battle area most of the day in his OH-58 helicopter directing the defensive effort. Due to the intensity and accuracy of enemy fire directed at the airfield, the decision was made to have the helicopters stand by at Camp Holloway instead of Kontum.
May 15th: On the 15th there were numerous reports of contacts with enemy forces of unknown size north of the city, but no major attack developed. As Kontum continued to receive enemy rocket and artillery fire, there was a sense that seemed to permeate everything that the real battle for Kontum was about to begin.
Hawk's Claw was laagered at the Kontum airfield again on May 15th, so as to be able to more quickly respond to reports of NVA tank movement. The tanks had taken on primary target status and the U.S. advisors wanted to destroy as many as possible. The Hawk's Claw launched several times in response to reports from the air cavalry. One of the scouts reported sighting a tank; however, when the TOW aircraft got in the area, the only thing observed was a vehicle variously reported as an armored personnel carrier (APC), half-track and 2 1/2 ton truck. At any rate, a missile was fired at it and scored a direct hit, totally destroying the vehicle.
At about 2000 hours that evening, six tanks were reported 2 km north of Kontum City. Hawk's Claw, which had returned to Holloway for the night, was scrambled to Kontum. The enemy tanks moved into firing positions just beyond the perimeter and began firing directly into friendly positions. An armed Air Force AC-130 Spectre gunship was on station and engaged the tanks with 40mm cannon fire without success. Flares were dropped to provide illumination for Hawk's Claw. Unfortunately, the TOW gunner had difficulty acquiring any of the tanks in his sighting system. One missile was fired at a suspected tank location; however, there was no indication that the tank had been hit. After unsuccessfully attempting to acquire a target, the Hawk's Claw returned to Holloway. The Air Force gunship remained on station providing illumination and fire support for most of the night. Although the enemy tanks were firing on friendly positions, they never advanced any closer and after several hours, they inexplicably pulled back out of the area.
May 16th: The Hawk's Claw destroyed numerous targets northwest of Kontum City on May 16th. Most of these were abandoned ARVN trucks and APCs, but all of these items of equipment were considered usable. The targets were out of the range of friendly artillery and not suitable for TACAIR.
May 17th: Kontum airfield received sporadic rocket and artillery fire on May 17th. One of the rockets impacted in close proximity to two Cobra AH-1G gunships wounding one crewmember and damaging both aircraft. Later in the day, an exploding rocket set off a stack of ammunition just as an Air Force C-130 was unloading another ammunition pallet nearby. The pilot of the C-130 immediately applied full power in an attempt to make a take-off. Unfortunately, the aircraft rear ramp was still in the down position and when the pilot tried to rotate for take-off the ramp would drag on the runway slowing down the aircraft. As the aircraft ran off the end of the runway, the right wing struck a brick building sheering the wing and rupturing the fuel tanks. The fuel immediately ignited engulfing the aircraft in flames as it cart-wheeled for several hundred yards. Only two survivors were pulled from the wreckage.
The ammunition continued to explode on the airfield for the rest of the day hurling 105mm artillery rounds all over the area. Eventually, the entire ammunition dump was destroyed. One of the shells landed near a POL blivet and set the JP-4 ablaze. The exploding ammunition dump eventually cost the allies over 3,000 105mm artillery rounds, 25,000 gallons of POL, one C-130, and seven Air Force personnel who were the crew for the C-130.
For the next several days, defensive preparations continued as the enemy continued firing artillery and rockets into the city. There were numerous reports of enemy contacts along the perimeter. At night the flashes from enemy machine guns and recoilless rifles could be observed in close proximity to the friendly positions. TACAIR and gunships engaged these enemy targets.
May 18th: Efforts were made on the night of May 17th and early morning of the 18th to clean up the airfield. By 1030 hours the airfield was open to rotary wing aircraft but not ready for fixed wing traffic. Hawk's Claw successfully engaged and destroyed a tank and 23mm antiaircraft weapon northwest of the city on the afternoon of the 18th. Air Cavalry Reconnaissance indicated that NVA units were continuing to move into the area, preparing the battlefield for the coming "final push."
May 19th: During the early morning of the May 19th, the 44th Regiment came under ground attack along the northern perimeter. The attack, which was supported by 105/155mm artillery fire, lasted until about 0330 hours when the enemy finally withdrew. Gunships from Camp Holloway and Air Force gunships provided fire support for the 23rd ARVN Division. Some of the enemy troops managed to infiltrate behind elements of the 44th Regiment, however, these pockets were eliminated by 0730 hours.
The 23rd Division launched a reconnaissance in force to the north of Kontum City on the morning of May 19th. At 1100 hours the 23rd Recon Company air-assaulted, using VNAF helicopters, into a landing zone (LZ) 8 km north of the city in the vicinity of a suspected artillery position. The assault went well and elements of the 1/45th moved into blocking positions south of the LZ. The plan was to have the Recon Company move south from the LZ and catch any enemy troops between themselves and 1/45th. Enemy forces caught between the 23rd Recon Company and 1/45th, chose to attack 1/45th in their blocking positions. The position held, however, ARVN reaction forces refused to conduct counter attacks.
There was a cautious note of optimism beginning to appear as it became evident that ARVN forces would stand and fight under sustained enemy pressure.
May 20th: During the night of May 19th, enemy forces apparently tunneled up to the perimeter of the 53rd Regiment area on the northeast side of the city. The enemy drove elements of the 53rd out of their positions and occupied some of the ARVN bunkers. The 53rd conducted counterattacks supported by TACAIR, gunships, artillery, and 9 ARVN M-41 tanks. A problem arose when the tank commanders refused to advance. General Toan and Colonel Ba rushed to the scene and managed to convince the tank commanders that it would be best for them if they advanced. By later afternoon the positions that had been lost were recaptured.
Kontum City and the airfield received the usual ABFs throughout the day. An enemy rocket hit a VNAF C-123 while it was parked on the ramp. The fuel cell was ignited and the aircraft burned to the ground. Luckily, the crew was able to get out of the aircraft without injury.
Reports from the air cavalry troop indicated the enemy was reinforcing his units by infiltrating troops into the area. The buildup was concentrated north and northeast of the city. B-52 ARC light strikes were scheduled into these areas on a daily basis. Bomb damage assessments (BDAs) conducted by air cavalry units indicated that the enemy bunkers and fighting positions were being destroyed. Although there were no clear indications that large numbers of enemy troops were being killed, it was believed the ARC light strikes were hurting the enemy. Later events proved this belief to be correct.
May 21st: On May 21st the enemy launched a major attack against the northern perimeter. The friendly units were deployed generally in an arc to the north of the city running from west to east these units were; 3/44, 4/44, 4/45 and 2/53rd. The forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) generally followed the arc, however, along QL 14, the FEBA extended up the highway to the northwest to form a finger. At 0500 hours friendly units received a heavy ABF of mixed caliber rounds, followed by a two-pronged ground attack. The enemy was initially successful in cutting QL 14 at the base of the finger and in driving a wedge between 4/45 and 2/53rd.
Friendly elements conducted counterattacks throughout the day supported by artillery, TACAIR, and ARVN M-41 tanks. 3/44th was successful in driving the enemy out and restoring the FEBA trace at the base of the finger. Two battalions attacked up QL 14 to the north, one on either side of the road. Eight tanks supported the counterattack. One tank was hit and sustained moderate damage. The counterattack was successful in ejecting the enemy and restoring the FEBA. During the action Mr. Vann was overhead monitoring the situation and lending moral support. His presence in the battle area had a great stabilizing influence on both the U.S. advisors and the ARVN leadership. His role in the successful outcome of this battle cannot be overstated.
As Mr. Vann observed the battle, he appeared to be pleased with the outcome and stated that Colonel Ba's presence in the battle area had a positive effect on the troops and was responsible for the successful outcome. It is believed that the enemy attacked with a regimental size force. The 406th sapper battalion was identified as the unit that had cut QL 14.
There was strong evidence that the enemy was continuing his build up north west of the city. It was the cavalry troop commander's evaluation that the main attack would come from that area in the next few days. This proved to be an accurate prediction.
May 22nd: Due to the heavy ABFs on Kontum airfield during the day, Air Force C-130s were operating at night only. Early in the morning of May 22nd the airfield received approximately five 122mm rockets. A C-130 blew a tire while landing at about 0115 hours. This closed the field due to the fact that the Air Force would not allow more than one aircraft on the field at a time. Throughout the early morning the airfield continued to take enemy rocket and artillery fire. The C-130 that had the blown tire was hit by a piece of shrapnel causing a fuel leak. The spilled fuel was ignited by another round. The fire burned for some time in close proximity to the aircraft, however, there were no attempts to put out the fire for fear that the aircraft could explode. After a while, the flames spread under the wing and set it on fire. At about 1030 hours Colonel John A. Todd landed his helicopter near the burning aircraft and he and his crew put out the fire with buckets of sand. Then, Colonel Todd extracted the Air Force crew. This is just one example of the courage and determination of Col. John Todd. Throughout the Battle of Kontum, Col. Todd made significant contributions to the Army aviation effort in support of the ARVN defense of Kontum City.
There were growing indications that the ARC light strikes had had a significant impact on the combat effectiveness of the 320th NVA Division. The 4/53rd Infantry found 70 bodies just 2 km northwest of Kontum City. In addition, they recovered numerous small arms and crew served weapons. Later in the morning the 2/53rd found 28 more bodies 1.5 km north of the city. Years later, it would be reported that the NVA lost thousands of soldiers in this battle, most of whom were listed as missing in action.
Since January 1st, there had been 820 ARC light strikes in Kontum Province alone. In the previous week, there had been 84 such strikes. It was becoming obvious that the heavy bombing was taking a toll on the enemy forces. There was some frustration among the advisors on the use of the B-52 strikes. The rules of engagement imposed on the targeting for ARC light strikes often made it difficult to call in the strikes in a timely manner and close in to friendly positions. There was a great concern not to accidentally hit friendly positions. This conservative approach often limited the effectiveness of the strikes, but another contributing factor was the uncertainty of the ARVN positions when they were out in the field. If ARVN positions were not precisely known, they too could be hit by the massive strikes of the B-52s.
May 23rd and 24th: The 23rd and 24th of May were relatively quiet. It appeared to be the "calm before the storm." There were the usual ABFs against the city and the airfield. Elements of the 53rd Regiment made contact with an enemy force of unknown size, killing 25 and capturing two mortars. The Forward Operating Base (FOB) pad, which was an old Special Forces camp located about 3 km south of the city on QL 14, came under enemy artillery fire, but there was no appreciable damage.
This camp, which actually straddled QL 14 on the east and west sides, had been used for years by the Special Forces to launch secret long-range operations into Cambodia and Laos. On my first tour, 1967-68, I lived at the base as a lift platoon commander for more than 90 days as the 189th AHC, 119th AHC and 57th AHC provided support for the mission. During this battle, the base was being utilized as an alternate rearm and refuel point for helicopters operating in Kontum. I had the opportunity to fly the "Air Boss" mission over the battle area on a number of occasions. The call sign for this mission was "Sage Street" and the mission was to coordinate and control all aircraft within the immediate battle area of Kontum City. This was General John Hill's idea and it worked well. An OH-58 was used for the mission and the responsibility for the mission was rotated between a core group of officers from the 17th CAG.
May 24th: On May 24th, the 1/44th and 2/44th conducted a combat assault using seven VNAF units and two gunships about 4 km north of their perimeter. They met light resistance as they moved back towards friendly positions without major contact with NVA units.
May 25th: Enemy activity in Kontum increased significantly on May 25th. Enemy ABFs on the city continued throughout the day. The caliber of weapons varied from 60mm mortars to 155mm artillery. There were reports that two NVA Sapper Battalions had infiltrated the southeastern part of the city wearing ARVN uniforms. RF units were in heavy contact within the southeast quadrant of the city. There was great concern about the ability of the RF units to hold. They had responsibility for the entire southern portion of the perimeter and that was considered the most vulnerable point. Many times at night the soldiers would go back into town to be with their families leaving gaping holes in the defensive positions. For whatever reason, this weakness was never truly exploited by the enemy units.
In the southern quadrant, the 4/44th killed 16 enemy soldiers and captured one. The POW stated his battalion (6th Bn, 1st Regiment, 2nd NVA Division) had infiltrated Kontum City. During this period, the intense enemy artillery and rocket fire neutralized the 23rd Division artillery. Most of the ARVN artillery pieces were operational, but the crews refused to leave the safety of their bunkers in order to fire their weapons. This was a continuing source of irritation and frustration for the U.S. advisors who knew the ARVN had to fire counter battery fire if they were ever going to affect the NVA guns. Mr. Vann closed the airfield and directed that all of the air controllers be evacuated; this was done by 1730 hours.
The air cavalry conducted extensive reconnaissance northwest of Kontum City. Numerous small arms and supply cashes were found in the vicinity of Rocket Ridge and the adjacent valley. It appeared that the area north of Polei Kleng was being used as a storage and staging area. There were numerous sightings of small groups of people throughout the area. The road that had stopped west of the ridge now extended over it to the east. There were indications of heavy usage by wheeled and tracked vehicles.
May 26th: The long awaited main attack hit the northeast quadrant of the city early in the morning of May 26th. The enemy conducted an intense artillery preparation beginning at about 0230 hours and lasting until about 0430 hours. The timing of the attack had been anticipated because of intelligence information. However, the exact hour was different from what was expected because the NVA were on Hanoi time that was one hour behind local time. The artillery preparation was followed by a massive combined arms attack spearheaded by 10-12 tanks. One of the lead tanks carried a large colorful NVA flag; it was the company commander's tank and inside were "hero" awards he had received for the tank battle of 1969. This information was found after the battle.
The enemy penetrated the perimeter and got in behind the 1/53rd and 3/53rd Infantry Battalions. The 44th Regiment was also heavily engaged. Enemy tanks and infantry penetrated to within several hundred meters of the runway at the airfield. In addition, enemy units that had occupied positions in the southeast part of the city had been reinforced during the night. Efforts to conduct a counterattack to eject the NVA were unsuccessful.
In response to the enemy attack, Hawk's Claw was launched from Camp Holloway at about 0615. The "turkey shoot" began at about 0645 when the first tank of the day was destroyed by a TOW missile. Some of the reports were that the enemy referred to the Hawk's Claw as "whispering death" because of the sound made by the trailing wires behind the missile. This was the optimum situation for the airborne TOW system. The weather was fairly good and the tanks were exposed in the attack during daylight hours. Before the morning was over, the Hawk's Claw aircraft had destroyed nine tanks, two machine guns, one truck, and one bunker. This effectively stopped the momentum of the attack. During the remainder of the day the battle raged on with opposing forces locked in close combat within the city. By the end of the day, the enemy controlled the eastern part of the city. TACAIR, artillery, and gunships supported the ARVN effort to stop the enemy.
May 27th: The 27th was the second day of major enemy attacks on Kontum City. The enemy continued his attacks by fire and reinforced his positions within the city. Pressure continued to be applied by enemy units to the northern portion of the perimeter. Enemy artillery fire was impacting with great accuracy and affect in the vicinity of the 44th Regiment Command Post. Early in the morning of the 27th, the enemy made another major infantry attack from the northeast. At this point there was great concern that the NVA units would breach the defenses and pour into the city.
Once again, Hawk's Claw was scrambled from Camp Holloway to meet the threat. Two T-54 tanks were destroyed as soon as the Claw arrived in the area. However, dense smoke and dust clouds from the artillery and rockets impacting in the area obscured the battle area, which prevented Hawk's Claw from acquiring any more targets. The Senior Advisor for the 44th Regiment confirmed that two tanks were killed by the TOW missiles plus two T-54's were knocked out by M-72 LAWs 400 meters north of his command post. The ARVN soldiers were gaining confidence in their ability to stop the tanks with the LAW. After the battle, I saw pieces of 2x4 wood planks that the ARVN soldiers had rigged up to fire six M- 72s at one time. Most of the tank hulks surveyed after the battle had multiple holes in them from the M-72 hits.
The helicopter re-supply effort continued throughout the battle. The main logistical burden during this period was carried by CH-47s belonging to the 180th Assault Support Helicopter Company (ASHC). Even though there were enemy snipers in close proximity to the LZ and enemy artillery rounds impacting nearby, the Chinooks continued their essential work of hauling ammunition and food to Kontum. The only area that was secure enough to use was the soccer field located in the southwest part of the city. A serious problem that plagued the logistical effort throughout the battle was the lack of control of the refugees in the LZ. The CH-47s were taking as many civilians out of the city as possible, however, often in their panic to escape, the refugees would mob the aircraft. On several occasions the air controllers were threatened by unruly mobs. This sad spectacle was only made worse by the, sometimes brutal, methods used by the local police to control these terrified people. This problem continued off and on throughout the period of intense enemy action but subsided as the situation in Kontum stabilized.
Late in the afternoon of May 27th, a VNAF A1-E was shot down 2km southwest of the city. The pilot parachuted safely and was picked up by a helicopter operating in the area.
During this intense period of combat, there was considerable concern that ARVN units were not successfully launching counterattacks. The biggest fear was that the longer the enemy stayed in the city, the more difficult it would be to dig them out.
An interesting event took place in the Kontum Pass, south of the city, where ARVN forces had been trying, without success, to open QL 14 between Kontum and Pleiku. Strong enemy forces occupying well-constructed bunkers and fighting positions bogged down friendly units. Colonel Tuong, II Corps Deputy for Operations, offered one third of his month's pay (he said about 10,000 piasters) to anyone in the unit he was with who would knock out a 51 cal antiaircraft weapon that had been firing at aircraft that came into the area. His offer was accepted by one of the ARVN soldiers. The soldier got into position, covered by his comrades, and threw a grenade into the cave from which the gun was firing. The soldier observed a 57mm recoilless rifle nearby and knocked this out with a grenade also. Both weapons were brought back to Colonel Tuong, but the gunner of the 51 cal. MG had to be cut loose from the weapon since he was chained to it. This was one more indication that the NVA were decisively engaged and were committed to winning the battle at all costs. The enemy soldier was identified as being from the 40th Artillery Regiment, normally part of the 304th NVA Division, but now, apparently, supporting the 95th B Regiment.
The NVA were masters in the use of the 51 cal. MG and the B-40 rocket. Both weapons were used in a variety of roles. Usually the 51 cal. MGs were employed with a crew of 10 - 12 men who supported the gun and prepared the firing positions. They used the gun for antiaircraft and antipersonnel missions. These weapons were deadly against helicopters. The B-40 rocket was also a very effective weapon, which was sometimes used in an antiaircraft role. It was apparently one of these gun positions in the pass that killed a friend of mine, CPT Joe Eubanks flying a 57th AHC UH-1H helicopter on June 2nd. Another friend, CPT Fred Suttle from H/10 CAV was also killed trying to go in to get Joe and his crew from the downed aircraft. They are not forgotten.
The operation to open QL 14 through the Kontum Pass dragged on for weeks. The enemy offered stiff resistance, and the ARVN forces were unable to dislodge them until the first week of July.
May 28th: The enemy continued the early morning attacks on May 28th, however, they were not as strong as previous ones and were easily beaten off. Enemy ABFs continued throughout the day with the majority of the rounds landing in the vicinity of the 44th Regiment. The attacks were lighter than they had been for the previous three days. Although scattered contacts continued throughout the day, a major enemy assault never materialized. Hawk's Claw was launched at 0915 to engage an enemy 51cal. Machine gun position mounted on top of a water tower in the north central part of town. The position was attacked at 1010 hours. Five missiles were fired in an attempt to knock out the gun and destroy the water tower. The gun was destroyed, and the water tower was damaged to the point that it was leaning badly to one side. Another 51 cal. MG position located at the base of the tower was knocked out by 105mm artillery fire.
The situation within Kontum City remained critical. The enemy still occupied the eastern half of the city plus some small penetrations in the northwest. The Senior Advisor for the 23rd ARVN Division, Colonel John Truby, with his staff, made a crucial decision during the night of May 28th. After overcoming many difficulties, they decided to pull friendly forces back, closer to the center of the city so that the rules of safe distance from ARC light strikes could be satisfied and they could bring the strikes much closer in. This was a courageous and risky decision but it was crucial to the successful defense of the city. The B-52 strikes caught the NVA units preparing to attack and had a devastating effect on the enemy.
May 29th: The situation in Kontum remained about the same on May 29th. Enemy attacks by fire tapered off during the day. Although the ARVN were still not able to launch an effective counterattack, there were indications that the enemy was no longer able to reinforce his elements. VNAF air strikes in the southeast quadrant of the city appeared to have a good effect. The enemy had dug in and constructed fighting positions and bunkers throughout the area that made movement and aircraft operations extremely hazardous. Two slicks received intense small arms fire while attempting to land at the 23rd Division CP. During the afternoon, reinforcements were sent to Kontum by CH-47. These troops, about 400 of them, were from the 47th Regiment.
Mr. Vann and General Toan were becoming more optimistic at this point. There were indications that the enemy had been badly hurt. POWs stated that enemy commanders at all levels had been directed to personally lead attacks to insure their success. Mr. Vann and General Toan directed that an all-out effort be made by psyops personnel to try to get enemy troops to surrender. These efforts, for the most part, were unsuccessful.
The major logistical problem of re-supply was relieved somewhat as Air Force C-130 aircraft, using radar vectors, started dropping bundles of supplies by parachute. This proved very effective and continued throughout the remainder of the battle.
May 30th: Early in the morning of May 30th, the tide of the battle of Kontum, although still extremely volatile, seemed to be shifting in favor of the ARVN troops. The 44th Regiment CP and 23rd Division CP received an intense ABF, but it was of short duration and the damage done was limited. Enemy elements within the city attacked units of the 44th Regiment, but the enemy was not able to make any significant gains. At about 0700 hours, a large ammo dump located north of the airfield was set on fire and exploded.
Two wounded NVA troops were captured early in the morning near the 44th Regiment CP. There was an attempt to exploit these POWs for psyops purposes by trying to convince other NVA soldiers to surrender; however, the operation was not successful. Late in the day, elements of the 44th Regiment made some progress in clearing the northeast section of the city.
Although the weather turned poor, and started to adversely affect air operations, there was a note of optimism, and the entire picture was looking a little less dark. In the afternoon, at about 1330 hours, President Thieu visited the 23rd Division CP and promoted Colonel Ba to the rank of Brigadier General.
May 31st: Some progress was made on the 31st of May when elements of the 44th Regiment and RF/PF units continued attacks against enemy-held positions within the city. The fighting in the northeast was difficult, and friendly forces suffered many casualties. The enemy, although not considered strong in numbers, occupied well-constructed bunkers. The difficult business of rooting them out fell on the ARVN infantry troops. The task was very costly to the ARVN. The soldiers demonstrated a great deal of courage and persistence in this hazardous work.
June 1st - 8th: The situation in Kontum continued to improve on June 1st as the enemy penetration in the southeast quadrant had virtually been eliminated, and there were indications that the enemy was withdrawing to the northeast. The 23rd Division reported that they had seized control of the airfield.
For the next several days the friendly forces conducted clearing operations within the city. The southeast quadrant was cleared first and then all forces were directed to sweep the northeast quadrant. Hard, bitter fighting ensued with heavy losses resulting for both sides. ARVN M-41 tanks often fired point blank into buildings occupied by the enemy. Throughout this period, the enemy conducted sporadic ABFs. Several minor attacks on the northern perimeter were easily repulsed. It was believed that these attacks were to support enemy units attempting to withdraw from the city.
On one occasion, as the enemy was withdrawing from the city, he ran into one of his own units. With each unit mistaking the other for an ARVN unit, a firefight ensued between them and ARVN artillery took the opportunity to support both sides.
As ARVN units continued clearing operations, large numbers of enemy weapons were captured. Stiff resistance was encountered in the northeast quadrant, but it eventually was cleared out.
The business of cleaning up the battlefield was made more difficult by the fact that the enemy had booby-trapped many of the dead ARVN soldiers. As time progressed this problem became more serious as the bodies rapidly decomposed in the hot sun.
By June 7th, it began to appear that another enemy attack on the city was unlikely, and everyone felt optimistic. On the 8th of June, Air Force C-130 aircraft began landing again at the airfield during the night.
June 9th: This was indeed a most significant day because, on that day, the 23rd Division Commander declared the city secured. Another event took place on the 9th of June that was felt by all of us. That was the death of John Paul Vann, the II Corps Senior Advisor. After a farewell party held in honor of BGEN John Hill, who was departing the next day, Mr. Vann got into his OH-58 Bell Ranger helicopter along with his pilot, First Lieutenant Ronald F. Doughtie and a passenger, Captain Robertson. They took off from II Corps Headquarters at about 2100 hours.
I had been flying a UH-1H helicopter from the 57th AHC to the coast that day on a routine mission. On my return, at about 1800 hours, I was notified that the Ground Control Approach (GCA) equipment at Kontum was down and that they needed a part to be flown up to the Kontum airfield as soon as possible to support the Air Force C-130 aircraft coming in that night. We picked up the part and went to Kontum. The weather was closing in and it was not easy to maintain VFR (Visual Flight Rules) conditions. Rain, heavy at times, and low clouds were present for most of the flight. We dropped off the needed part and headed back to Pleiku. The weather had deteriorated and we were flying under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) conditions back into Pleiku. In the lightning flashes you could see low clouds in the Kontum Pass along QL 14. As we approached Camp Holloway we heard Mr. Vann call off of the II Corps helipad with his distinctive voice and call sign of "Rouges Gallery". When I got back in to the 17th CAG TOC (tactical operations center), LTC Jack Anderson, commander of the 17th CAV, "Ruthless Rider 6," was there and they were monitoring a report that a helicopter had gone down in the Kontum pass.
Mr. Vann had insisted on going to Kontum because he wanted to spend the night with the 23rd Division. For the previous 30 days he had been up to Kontum at least once a day and he didn't want to break his record. He took some fresh fruit and other treats that were left over from the farewell party. He had intended these for the men in Kontum so that they could share in the festivities that had taken place earlier.
Apparently, Mr. Vann elected to low-level up QL 14 because the weather was poor. Mr. Vann called the 23rd Division CP shortly after take-off estimating 15 minutes from Kontum. That was the last anyone heard from him. An ARVN unit located in the Kontum Pass reported observing a helicopter crash. A search effort was launched by the 17th CAG from Camp Holloway. LTC Jack Anderson asked me if I wanted to go with him. I had been flying more than 9 hours that day and I hesitated to answer. CPT Bernard Ferguson, who had been manning the TOC, was standing beside me and volunteered to fly with LTC Anderson. They took the aircraft I had been flying and went to the crash site where they found Mr. Vann's body and brought it back.
There was irony in this accident. As Mr. Vann and his pilot flew north up QL14, they apparently encountered some low clouds going through the pass and attempted to complete a low level, 180 degree turn, to fly out of the clouds. Along the highway, the vegetation had been cleared 150 to 200 yards on either side to prevent ambushes and provide better security. At the point they made their turn, there was a small stand of trees that had not been cleared because there was a burial site there. Mr. Vann wanted to respect local traditions and I was told that was the reason the site had not been cleared. The aircraft hit that stand of trees. A detailed description of this event can be found on page 786 of Neil Sheehan's excellent work on the life of John Paul Vann and the American experience in Vietnam, "A Bright Shining Lie." Mr. Sheehan interviewed me at Pleiku in August or September of 1972 about this event and the Battle of Kontum in general.
This concludes my presentation on the Battle of Kontum. My purpose has been to provide what information I have on an event that affected many people and an event that also gave us some powerful lessons learned. The recent events in Afghanistan bore an amazing resemblance to the tactics and battles fought in the Central Highlands of Vietnam more than 30 years ago. The fact that the AC-130 Spectre gunships and the B-52 ARC light strikes were used again only reinforces the timelessness of the lessons we learned so long ago.
I have tried to provide a more comprehensive picture of the role played by aviation units in this battle, especially the Army helicopter units that supported the ARVN units who fought the battle, along with their American advisors. The critical importance of the Air Force support, both on the ground and in the air cannot be emphasized enough. Without the massive fire produced by the B-52 ARC light strikes it would have been impossible to resist the onslaught of the NVA divisions.
Finally, I wanted to remember those who were there and who gave all they had in a cause that remains to this day, a source of pride for some of us, and, a source of pain for all of us.
"If the free nations want a certain kind of world, they will have to fight for it, with courage, money, diplomacy --- and legions... A nation that does not prepare for all forms of war should then renounce the use of war in national policy. A people that does not prepare to fight should then be morally prepared to surrender." --- T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness.