Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam 1970
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On April 10, 1970, Hill 927 was occupied by troopers of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. By July, the activities of the artillery and infantry of Ripcord had caught the attention of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and a long and deadly siege ensued. Ripcord was the Screaming Eagles’ last chance to do significant damage to the NVA in the A Shau Valley before the division was withdrawn from Vietnam and returned to the United States.
At Ripcord, the enemy counterattacked with ferocity, using mortar and antiaircraft fire to inflict heavy causalities on the units operating there. The battle lasted four and a half months and exemplified the ultimate frustration of the Vietnam War: the inability of the American military to bring to bear its enormous resources to win on the battlefield. In the end, the 101st evacuated Ripcord, leaving the NVA in control of the battlefield. Contrary to the mantra “We won every battle but lost the war,” the United States was defeated at Ripcord. Now, at last, the full story of this terrible battle can be told.
From the Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group
; December 2007
544 pages; ISBN 9780307416551
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Author: Keith Nolan
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The first mortar salvo landed during the usual morning routines on the firebase. Lieutenant Colonel Andre Lucas was still inside his tactical operations center-the TOC-probably with a cup of coffee and the first cigarette of the day in hand as he checked the latest intelligence readouts from division. The ops center, encased in adjoining steel shipping containers known as conexes, each about the size of a small office, was entrenched directly below the top of the hill on the eastern side of Firebase Ripcord.
Major Herbert E. Koenigsbauer, the battalion operations officer, was crossing the small helicopter pad leveled off in front of the TOC. Responsible for base security, Koenigsbauer made the rounds first thing every morning, checking the police call, inspecting the defensive wire, generally touching base with the commanders of the two howitzer batteries on the hill and the infantry company manning the fighting positions around the perimeter.
Koenigsbauer hadn't gone thirty feet that morning when, without warning-the enemy mortar crew was too far away to be heard as it fired, and the whistling descent of the salvo was lost amid the high winds that slapped almost constantly across the firebase-he saw the first round of that first salvo hit the corner of the partially submerged TOC where a tall, two-wheeled aircraft fire extinguisher was parked in case of crashes on the helipad. Even though the command bunker's radio antennas were offset so as not to mark its exact location, the enemy had studied the firebase with binoculars well enough from the surrounding high ground to determine the location of the TOC. The big red fire extinguisher must have stood out as the perfect aiming point.
Koenigsbauer dashed back around the blast wall that protected the entranceway to the operations center as the rest of the salvo came crashing in behind him. Those first five 82mm rounds, which hit at 7:03 a.m. on July 1, 1970, according to the battalion log, barely dented the hard-packed helipad. Ears were ringing inside the command bunker, but it too had been damaged only superficially. Amid the excited exclamations of the staff officers and radiomen on duty, Lucas made an appreciative comment about all the hard work that had gone into the construction of the heavily sandbagged TOC. The battalion commander also wryly observed that if the enemy could hit the TOC with his first round, he undoubtedly had already pinpointed all the other important targets on Ripcord.
Moments later, Capt. Rembert G. Rollison, commanding D/2-506th, the company securing the perimeter, reported by radio that the base was taking automatic-weapons fire and RPGs-hard-hitting rocket-propelled grenades-from a rocky hill only seven hundred meters to the east. The hill, part of the same jungled ridgeline as the hilltop occupied by Ripcord, was separated from the firebase by a shallow draw. Rollison's grunts, surprised that the enemy would engage them in broad daylight but otherwise unintimidated by the fire, rushed to their fighting positions and excitedly returned fire with M16s, M79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and a heavy, tripod-mounted .50-caliber machine gun.
There was a second infantry element on the base, SSgt. Paul E. Burkey's 3d Platoon, C/2-506th. Though the timing now seemed ironic, the platoon had been lifted up the day before in accordance with a new policy that afforded the line platoons an overnight stay on Ripcord on a rotating basis to rest, resupply, and treat the various skin diseases picked up from operating in the jungle.
In short order, the 105mm howitzers of Capt. David F. Rich's B/2-319th and the 155s of Capt. Gordon A. Baxendale's A/2-11th Field Artillery (FA), working from preplotted grids of likely enemy firing positions around the firebase, were booming in answer to the NVA. Ripcord's perimeter was a figure eight in shape; the 105s occupied the top of the higher, wider southeast half of the hill, whereas the 155 battery was set up on a narrow lower tier that rose to a bouldered knoll at the northwest end of Firebase Ripcord.
The enemy drew immensely more fire than he delivered. In addition to the howitzers, the 81mm mortar platoon from E/2-506th, the battalion support company, was pumping out rounds from its gun pits below the TOC. Air support also began to converge over Ripcord as the incoming fire was reported from battalion to brigade to division. Less than fifteen minutes into the action, a Pink Team arrived from the 2-17th Cav, the division's air cavalry squadron. Pink Teams consisted of an OH-6A light observation helicopter (LOH) from the White Platoon of its troop and a Cobra gunship from the Red Platoon. Having been alerted to a mortar on what was from Ripcord the back side of Hill 805, the bouldered peak of which was two kilometers (klicks) southeast of the firebase, the scout ship buzzed down to identify the target and mark it with smoke grenades for the fast-moving Cobra.
The mortar position had been called in by Capt. Thomas T. Hewitt, commanding officer (CO) of C/2-506th, which, except for the platoon on the firebase, was in position atop Hill 902, a prominent terrain feature two and a half klicks southwest of Ripcord. At 7:28 a.m., a two-round salvo wounded one of Rich's cannoneers-the first casualty of the battle-and Hewitt quickly alerted the TOC of another firing position, this one on the back side of a knoll less than a kilometer from the firebase. The mortar was situated as if on an invisible line drawn directly between 902 and Ripcord.
The Pink Team was followed by a fire team of rocket-laden Cobras from the 4-77th Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA). The division's ARA battalion was responsible for knocking out entrenched targets such as dug-in mortars, whereas minigun-equipped Cobras from the 2-17th Cav usually responded to reports of enemy troops in the open. Moments later, the low-flying LOH from the Pink Team reported a suspected mortar position in a draw one klick southwest of 805 and two klicks southeast of Ripcord. The scout ship banked away sharply, with ice green tracers snapping past from Hill 805.
There was by then an air force forward air controller (FAC) above the battlefield in a little O-1 Bird Dog. The FAC reported a fourth mortar position on a small knoll at the northern base of Hill 902. The FAC, meanwhile, marked targets with white phosphorus (WP) rockets. At the forty-five-minute mark, F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers began laying bombs and napalm canisters (snake 'n nape) on 805 and, given the sniper fire, that part of the ridgeline running southeast from Ripcord toward Hill 805. It was quite a show, and some of the troops on Ripcord broke out their cameras as the jets flashed past in the valley below. The tactical air strikes-tac air, for short-were right on the money, but the Phantoms had no sooner pulled up than the mortar crew under the bombs defiantly lobbed a few more rounds toward Ripcord. Later, two LOHs from a 2-17th Cav White Team went down for another look, only to draw more automatic fire from Hill 805.
It was an old story. The allies had the firepower, but the terrain favored the enemy, who remained mostly unseen under the jungle canopy as they alternated their fire from numerous locations. The key terrain features around Hill 927, atop which Ripcord was built, include Hill 805, situated across a sharp draw from the southeast end of the firebase ridgeline at four o'clock-as viewed from above, with the firebase at the center of the clock-and Hill 1000, a kilometer away at nine o'clock on the same ridge. A small, unnumbered knoll sits between Hill 927 and Hill 1000. The ridge descends behind Hill 1000, then turns southwest and climbs to the top of Hill 1298-Coc Muen Mountain-which dominates the area and is three kilometers from Ripcord at eight o'clock. A major ridgeline descends to the southeast from Coc Muen, with Hill 902 situated along it between six and seven o'clock.
Lieutenant Colonel Lucas was stretched too thinly to occupy all the high ground and before the battle had no reason to be tied down in so defensive a posture. On the morning of July 1, Company D was on Ripcord while A/2-506th secured Firebase O'Reilly, a mutually supporting U. S.-ARVN position seven kilometers northwest on Hill 542. Most of Company C was bivouacked atop Hill 902. Intelligence had earlier predicted the incursion of an NVA battalion in the hills between Ripcord and O'Reilly, and Lucas's remaining maneuver elements-a team from the Reconnaissance Platoon of E/2-506th, B/2-506th, and D/2-501st, which had recently been placed under Lucas's operational control from the division reserve-were deployed to meet that threat.
The enemy concentrated his intermittent fire on Captain Rich's battery on the highest part of Ripcord. First Lieutenant Tore D. Hewlett, the executive officer (XO), and Sfc. Frank J. Rankins, the firing chief, were hit, as were a dozen cannoneers as they loaded and fired the 105s. Though most of the injuries were minor, three men from B/2-319th FA did require helicopter evacuation. Rich, a highly experienced artilleryman, strode among his gun crews under the shelling, keeping their spirits up. As artillery officers were trained to do, he rushed into the smoke of each explosion to inspect the crater and determine where the round had been fired from based on the angle of its impact. The battery commander was twice peppered with shrapnel in the process, but his crater analysis, in coordination with data from the base's countermortar radar, allowed for the placement of extremely accurate fire on the enemy around the firebase. In the first three and a half hours of the shelling, after which it petered out, the enemy managed to put only about thirty rounds in the air, half of which overshot Ripcord.
Captain Hewitt helped adjust the arty from his vantage point atop Hill 902. The gunships and jets also continued to make their runs. It took time, however, to work over each identified enemy position in its turn, and Hewitt's troops, while waiting, put several M60s into action, firing at the mortar directly between their hill and the firebase, and another on the facing slope of Coc Muen, though both were just beyond the weapon's effective range of eleven hundred meters. More realistically, they also targeted the mortar at the northwest base of their hill. The crew down there was popping an occasional round through a small hole in the canopy marked by the smoke ring that would puff through it with each thump of the mortar tube. Some men on that side of the perimeter readied a number of LAWs-single-shot, over-the-shoulder light antitank weapons usually used to blow open bunkers. The first one, aimed skyward to give it a little extra range, arced down into the jungle. It fell short, but the next rocket hit the mark, an expert shot. Though there were no secondary explosions to confirm a direct hit, the mortar ceased firing. The grunts would later come to regret the accuracy of that LAW.
From the Paperback edition.