The Battle of Kontum Banner Image



Monday, March 6, 2000


The worst came in April 1972, when the North Vietnamese radio reported that they had captured and killed Me.

The battle at Fire Base Charlie in Kontum Province became famous after Phan Nhat Nam published a book called "Mua He Lua Do," or "The Red Flames of Summer."

Nam, then press officer at Ranger headquarters, had tape-recorded the eyewitness accounts as the soldiers returning from Charlie were treated at the hospital.

He later assembled the recordings into the book, which won the 1972 South Vietnamese National Literature Award.

Voice of Vietnam Radio, Army Radio in Saigon and local radio stations transmitted the story throughout South Vietnam. A popular song called "Nguoi o lai Charlie" or "The men stayed at Charlie," followed.

On April 12, Me's 11th Airborne Battalion was sent to defend Fire Support Base Charlie, on a mountain pass at 960 meters, with 470 officers and a gutsy American adviser named John Duffy, a Green Beret on his third of four tours in Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese army wanted to set up a road through the mountains to Route 14, capture Kontum, and link up with its coastal forces. Fire Base Charlie was in their path.

The elite 320th Division, the legendary unit that helped defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu, launched an assault on Charlie that wiped out three of four bunkers within minutes. Me's commander was killed, and Me assumed command of the 11th battalion.

The bombardment continued but the paratroopers held their positions. The American, Duffy, aggressively worked the perimeter, targeting enemy guns and formations. Enemy fire followed him wherever he went. He was wounded several times, but kept calling air strikes.

The men at Charlie held ground for three days. But on April 15 the North Vietnamese surrounded the base and the paratroopers of the 11th battalion were fighting only with grenades, knives and empty rifles as clubs.

"They were thirsty, hungry and full of grime and the blood of battle," Nam wrote in his book. "The mood among the commanders was grim and determined. They would not give up Charlie."

Me and Duffy were at the forefront, commanding the battle. Me ordered three counterattacks. Duffy targeted the strikes against enemy guns.

By nightfall, many paratroopers were killed or wounded. They fought until they ran out of food, water and ammunition. Now they needed to fight their way out.

At last, Me ordered a withdrawal and Duffy stayed to cover them. Me ordered Capt. Hai, the operations officer, to take command of the withdrawal while he and Duffy covered the breakout.

Me Le and John J. Duffy, retired US Army major, fought together in Kontum Province in 1972. Reunited in California in 1978, they have gathered yearly at Duffy's Santa Cruz home to celebrate Fourth of July.
Paul Joseph Brown/P-I

By the morning of April 16, after a night ambush in which Duffy and Me were wounded, they gathered the remaining paratroopers, one-fourth of what they started with, and began to withdraw.

With a CAR-15 in hand, Duffy, wounded four times in five days of fighting, led them through the jungles under heavy gunfire.

At one point, from the thickness of the jungle, the North Vietnamese called Me, Hai and Duffy by their first names and yelled: "Surrender, you'll survive! Fight back, you'll die!"

Me looked at Duffy, who had patched up Me's sucking chest wound, and said, "No surrender, we fight."

"I'll lead, you cover me," Duffy said.

Duffy summoned Cobra gunships to evacuate him and the 36 remaining paratroopers. He took the last lift, telling his Vietnamese counterparts, "If I leave on the first lift, the helicopter might not want to return."

With North Vietnamese troops firing automatic weapons at them, Me, Hai, Duffy and another man scrambled aboard. Duffy gave the thumbs-up signal to leave.

The North Vietnamese riddled the chopper with bullets; Duffy and Me pulled Hai aboard after he was shot in the foot. The door gunner was hit and later died.

Hai learned later that the gunner had finished his tour of duty in Vietnam and was to return to America the next day; the soldier had volunteered for that last mission.

"Me, you stuck with me," Duffy would tell him later. "We stayed together. We were a team."

Sen would hear that story told and retold by the two men years later, late into the night, always with affection and the best cognac.

Me won several Vietnamese medals and the U.S. Silver Star for directing three counterattacks in the face of North Vietnamese attacks that sent "over 2,000 rounds into the positions (his) battalion was defending on Fire Base Charlie."

Now, as the broken vessel crawls out of Saigon, Sen can tell that Me is very sad.

"I felt very shameful that we had to give up that quick," he would say later, the years reducing little of the moment's intensity. "That's not what we intended to do."

Sen frets about Me. A pragmatist, she thinks she can handle the displacement better than her husband.

She wonders if America will be like "The Wild, Wild West," shows on the GI Channel or Audrey Hepburn movies?

In two days, when they hit international waters in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy supplies their ship, and a convoy of two dozen Navy vessels, with food and water.

During the supplying, Me jokes with some American naval officers. He trades his hat, the red beret of the airborne division, for a Zippo lighter.

Eight days later, they reach Subic Bay in the Philippines. The U.S. authorities ask the naval officers, paratroopers and other men in uniform to surrender their weapons and military clothing.

Me turns over his arsenal of weapons, including the CAR-15 gun that his Green Beret friend, John Duffy, gave him after Firebase Charlie. He hates to give it up.

Before vessel 502 docks, with Subic Bay in the distance, the Vietnamese men aboard strip out of their camouflage uniforms and put on regular clothes.

"We felt like we lost our country," Me said later. "We didn't know who was responsible, but we felt like we were responsible, too. Most of the men had tears in their eyes."

They salute the American flag, and sing the Vietnamese national anthem.

The original is online at Flight from war to a new life -- and a nervous homecoming
which is Part 1 of A Daughter's Journey - One family's passage from Vietnam

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