Monday, April 17, 1972

Reds Paid High Price For Base, Adviser Says

By Matt Franjola

(UPI) --Maj. John Duffy glanced over his shoulder as he crossed the wire and abandoned Fire Base Charlie.

The North Vietnamese were taking possession of the bald mountaintop base in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. They were within five yards of the base perimeter.

Some 40 seriously wounded members of the South Vietnamese garrison lay quietly in the bunkers, awaiting capture. The hope was the North Vietnamese would continue a pattern and treat the wounded men well. About 100 government soldiers were lost, killed or wounded --in the daylong fight.

Duffy, of San Diego, Calif., was senior U.S. adviser at the small base. He and the South Vietnamese airborne unit commander were the last of the 214 men to pull out Friday after the human wave Communist attacks added Charlie to the list of bases captured by the North Vietnamese.

"The enemy paid a heavy price to take that position," Duffy said here Saturday while steadying himself after the rough march away from Charlie over about a mile of some of the meanest jungle in Vietnam. He estimated at least 1,000 Communists were killed in the fighting.

"They were stacked up like cordwood," he said.

Duffy kept an official journal during the final hours of Charlie, but also entered some personal observations. Sitting unshaven on a cot, he reconstructed the last day of Charlie for a newsman.

The dirt-packed position had been almost surrounded by Communist troops of the North Vietnamese 64th Regt who had plagued the fire base for days, trying to obtain a foothold in the highlands for the offensive.

The Friday takeover consisted of a daylong artillery bombardment by the Communists interspersed with ground attacks from the southwest, then the west, and finally the successful push from the northwest. The Communists penetrated the base perimeter in each of the assaults, he said. Duffy said U.S. helicopter gunships kept the North Vietnamese staggering with "some of the prettiest firing I ever saw," he said.

He said evacuation became inevitable toward dusk Friday when the paratroopers defending the base could not get organized for a counterattack to drive back the Communists. The gunships bought the time needed for an escape, Duffy said.

Nine antiaircraft guns had ringed Charlie to suppress air support. But Duffy said the sharpshooting pilots knocked out five of the sites and kept a protective umbrella over the besieged base.

Friday morning, Duffy noted in his soiled notebook that he sustained some minor shrapnel wounds in his left arm as Friday began with another bombardment. That shelling dropped more than 300 rounds on the base from 9:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Friday, he noted.

"Looks like a big buildup planned for Charlie," the major scribbled five minutes after the shelling stopped.

Then the heavy ground attacks began. Communist troops took heavy losses but pushed on.

"Southwest perimeter overrun" was his note at 4:45 p.m. Then 15 minutes later came the decisive notation:

"NVA push forward."

One hour later, 6 p.m., and Duffy scribbled "three sets of Cobras (helicopter gunships) called to cover withdrawal." Before putting the book in a pocket of his filthy fatigue uniform, he entered the item:

"Commander and I last to leave position. NVA within five meters of perimeter."

Then there was no time for writing, just the hard, sweaty climb up and down jungled mountains to safety with few stops. The South Vietnamese force stopped at the base of a nearby ridgeline, where helicopters fluttered in with reinforcements. Duffy and 36 others came back to Fire Base Bravo.

Duffy was exhausted when he got off the helicopter. He was glassy-eyed, but his thoughts were clear. He finished making his report and then told his story to a newsman.

Then Duffy, West Point graduate and 15-year-Army veteran, covered his eyes with a dirty sock and went to sleep.

[ View John Duffy's Guestbook entry concerning this battle ]

"Reds Paid High Price For Base, Adviser Says", by Matt Franjola, published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Monday, April 17, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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