Friday, May 12, 1972

Fire Base Hit as War Sneaks Up on Pleiku

by Spec. 4 JIM SMITH
S&S Staff Correspondent

PLEIKU, Vietnam
--Two South Vietnamese soldiers slipped a rope around a mangled, bullet-riddled body of a Communist soldier, hoisted it from the blown-out bunker and tossed it onto a heap of other bodies near the perimeter wire. The stench of death, mixed with the scent of smoldering trucks, burning bunker tops and spent ammo was suffocating.

The war came to the doorstep of Pleiku here in the central highlands one morning last week. A Communist sapper company, preceded by a barrage of shells, stormed Fire Base 42 just eight miles north of Pleiku a little after midnight.

By dawn, 36 sappers lay dead near or inside the camp. Official spokesmen said friendly losses were 100 killed or wounded. One American adviser had died as he looked out of a bunker and was hit by a B40 rocket.

It was the closest to Pleiku Communist troops have struck in force since their countrywide offensive began March 30. Fire Base 42 is one of three government garrisons along vital Highway 14 which connects Pleiku with Kontum, 25 miles to the north.

The post is normally manned by elements of the 45th Regt., of the 23rd ARVN Div., but at the time of the attack, the lead element of a battalion of 2nd Airborne Brigade troops was inside after completing a 10-mile sweep along the highway.

"It's a good thing the airborne was here," said their American adviser, Maj. Michael D. Haynes, 34, of Columbus, Ga. "Otherwise I don't know what would have happened. Look at our side and look at the other side."

Haynes edged his way along a caved-in bunker, slipped between two supply shacks that had been reduced to ashes and surveyed the camp from the middle. "The main attack came from the east," he said pointing, "but look --look at how our men fought."

The half of the camp the regular ARVN infantry troops defended was reduced to rubble. Most of the vehicles and artillery pieces were on that side.

Col. Cran Tran Quoc Lich, commander of the 2nd Airborne Brigade, said, "We have better spirit, we're well-trained and we're more experienced. We've fought all for the country. But the infantry did well here, too. Everybody did. If they hadn't the NVA would own this place right now."

The 7th Bn. Killed 75 Reds in fighting near Chu Pae Mountain eight miles south of Kontum last week. Meanwhile, the 9th Airborne Bn. Swept down the east side of the highway.

The 4th ARVN Regt was choppered from An Khe to Chu Pao Mountain where Communists had dug mortar positions in caves and were preventing convoys from entering or leaving the city. But sources in Pleiku said the infantrymen fled from the rockpile when they drew contact from Communists. Sources said the 44th lost an entire company either killed or wounded.

"I'd be glad to have the mission to clear Chu Pao," Lich said, "I asked Gen. Dzu (Lt. Gen. Ngo Dzu, II Corps commander) for that job a month ago. There's a regiment of NVA up there and we need a lot of men to go in and clean them out.

"If somebody doesn't clear Chu Pao soon, we'll have a big problem when the enemy attacks Kontum. Our only resupply now is by air. When they attack, aircraft won't be able to get in."

Lich said he thought the Communist attack on Fire Base 42 was an attempt to kill him. "They knew I was there," he said. "They knew if they killed me it would be very good for them"

The round-faced, crewcut officer said his bunkers took several direct hits from the estimated 200 rounds of assorted shells that hit the camp, but he was not injured.

By noon that day Fire Base 42 was returning to normal. The airborne troops had gone. The bodies of each side had been wrapped in cellophane bags and removed. U.S. Cobra helicopters circled the area waiting for a chance to pick off any retreating enemy. The soldiers cooked rations and talked quietly.

"Fire Base Hit as War Sneaks Up on Pleiku", by Saigon " by Spec. 4 JIM SMITH S&S Staff Correspondent, KONTUM, Vietnam, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Friday, May 12, 1972 and reprinted with permission from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
[ Return to Index ]