BATTLE OF PU PRANG-LZ KATE-BAM ME THUOT 1969

By:  David Lee 189th Assault Helicopter

 

The Battle for Bu Prang-Duc Lap was a repeat of The Battle for Dak To-Ben Het, or Round 2 of Vietnamization in the Central Highlands. The difference for me was that during Dak To, I was on the ground and had a view of the big picture from a command stand-point; while at Bu Prang, I was a helicopter pilot flying combat missions.

After the Battle of Dak To, May-June 1969, the 1st Division of the NVA B-3 Front moved back into Base Area 209 in Laos, there to re-arm and to receive replacements. During August and September of 1969, the constituent elements of the 1st NVA Division, i.e., the 28th, the 32nd, and the 66th Infantry Regiments and the 40th Artillery Regiment, moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia. They were joined by the K-394th Artillery Battalion. They first moved to Base Areas 702 opposite Duc Co, then to Base Area 701 across the border from Tieu Atar, and finally to Base Area 740 west of Bu Prang. The MACV-SOG reconnaissance teams of FOB 2 and FOB 5 (Omega) played a role in monitoring these troop movements.

On the allied side, the 23rd ARVN Division was the unit responsible for the Area of Operation in Quang Duc and Dar Lac Provinces. The 23rd Division was made up of the 45th, 47th, and 53rd ARVN Infantry Regiments. The principle fighters would be the 5th Special Forces A Teams 233, 234, and 236, along with their CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group) Companies. These units would be reinforced with the 5th SF Mike Strike Force Battalions. Late in the campaign, the ARVN would commit the 22nd Ranger Group.

The First Field Force Vietnam (IFFV) of II Corp dispatched a Forward Mobile Staff (FMS) to Bam Me Thuot. This was a new, and perhaps updated, version of the Combined Fire Support Coordination Center (CFSCC) that was used at Dak To. Their role was to provide communication and coordination of all the US units that would support the ARVN operation against the North Vietnamese. Artillery support was once again provided by the 52nd Artillery Group from Pleiku, with specific participation by the 5/27th, 1/92nd, 2/17th, and 5/22nd Artillery Batteries. Aviation support would come from the 10th Aviation Battalion, which was a sister unit of the 52nd Aviation Battalion, my parent unit. The units comprising the 10th Aviation Battalion were the 48th, 117th, 155th and the 281nd Assault Helicopter Companies, the 129th Escort Company (Cobras), and the 180th Assault Support Company (Chinooks). The operation also saw the commitment of the 183rd Aviation Company (FAC), 82nd Medical Company (Dustoff), and the 7/17th Air Calvary. My unit, the 189th Assault Helicopter Company, was assigned OPCON (Operational Control) to the 155th AHC.

Intelligence sources had identified the Special Forces Camps at Bu Prang and Duc Lap as the initial targets of the NVA operation. If successful in securing those objectives, the NVA would move on to capture the City of Bam Me Thuot. A plan was developed by IFFV Artillery that would result in the creation of three new Fire Support Bases (FSBs), constructed in a triangle, south and west of Bu Prang. These FSBs were positioned so that each could place artillery fire in support of Bu Prang, but they could also support each other. The names of the FSBs were Kate, Susan, and Annie, the names of the daughters of the Artillery Commander who developed the plan. A similar group of FSBs would be constructed surrounding Duc Lap. Their names were Helen, Martha and Dorrie. A problem would develop concerning Kate in that its location was within artillery range of Cambodia, from which the NVA could fire artillery. Our artillery could not return fire because Cambodia had declared neutrality in the war. World politics and war.

Throughout August and the first-half of September, I was assigned OPCON to the 10th Aviation Battalion and flew convoy escorts and sniffer missions throughout southern II Corp. These missions were to gather intelligence on NVA troop movements, and to reposition allied units in preparation for the anticipated battle in western Quang Duc Province. During this period our missions were often interrupted by rain and inclement weather as the monsoon season continued. Enemy contacts were few, but that was about to change as the weather pattern shifted.

When in the Bam Me Thuot area, we stayed at Camp Coryell, an Army Airfield, and home of the 155th Assault Helicopter Company. Our helicopters were stored in sand bag revetments and we slept in buildings inside their compound.

On September 8, 1969, we received a call for a Tactical Emergency involving a Ghost Rider aircraft. Ghost Rider 67-17774 had left Plei Me, a Special Forces Camp south of Pleiku, and was enroute to Bam Me Thuot when the Aircraft Commander issued a “May Day” call. The aircraft had experienced a mechanical failure and crashed. All available aircraft began a detailed search of the normal air route along the main highway north of Bam Me Thuot. After several hours of searching, the helicopter crash site was located. The helicopter had experienced a complete tail rotor failure, with the rear gear box separating from the tail section. All four crew members, as well as the three passengers, were injured, but no fatalities resulted. The helicopter was destroyed.

Since I was the Platoon Leader of the Avenger Gunship Platoon, I had to periodically return to Pleiku for administrative reasons, and to check in with the other half of my platoon. Only half of the unit was OPCON to Bam Me Thuot at any one time. On the morning of September 12, I met a young Warrant Officer at the Officer’s Club for breakfast. He was a pilot that I had seen around the company area occasionally, but I had not gotten to know him. I learned that he was married, and that this was his second tour in Vietnam. During his first tour, he served as an enlisted person in a mechanized infantry and armor unit. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal for valor during a major battle in 1967. He was two weeks from going home. When he returned to the states after his first tour he had volunteered for flight school and the warrant officer program. When he left after breakfast, he told me he had an easy mission because he was flying the Two Star Commanding General of II Corp to Camp Enari, home of the 4th Infantry Division, for a meeting, and then he would return to Pleiku. This was a mission we called a “milk run”. Around noon I got word one of our helicopters had crashed near the Pleiku Air Force Base. I ran down to the operation building to find out what had happened. The operations officer told me to get my flight gear, and to meet him on the flight line. Together we flew north to the crash site. The helicopter was Ghost Rider 67-17316. When we arrived at the site, all that remand was an oblong pile of ash, with portions of the rotor blades and tail section visible. All four crew members were killed on impact. The Aircraft Commander was WO1 Larry Marsh, with whom I had eaten breakfast. Life is so fragile and uncertain.

I returned to Bam Me Thuot contemplating my own fate. Army intelligence indicated that survival during the next two months would be a challenge. Insertion of the Artillery Batteries and their CIDG security forces for FSBs Kate, Annie and Susan took place between September 15 and September 21. The initial insertions at each FSB location were completed as a combat assault. Our gunship teams would escort the slick aircraft, loaded with troops, onto the hill top bases. We remained on station until a company sized unit was on the ground, and a security perimeter had been established. We would then fly to Nhon Co Airfield, refuel, and then standby to respond in case the NVA decided to challenge the new installation. The Chinooks, medium-lift helicopters, then brought in the artillery guns for the batteries. Our first insertion was FSB Susan.

The next day I was assigned a mission to combat assault a Battalion of Mike Strike Force infantry into a blocking position north of Bam Me Thuot, near Tieu Atar. The ARVN Commanders were concerned that the NVA would execute a flanking movement that would bring a Regiment of infantry, south from Base Area 701, to Bam Me Thuot. The operation was routine. The ground cover near Tieu Atar was spare, with trees that were only about 30 feet tall. It was more arid than most of the Highlands. It looked like our high desert country in Oregon. This was the land of the Asian Stag, a deer that looks like a cross between a mule deer and an elk. We completed the insertion of the troops, and I thought we would be released to return to Bam Me Thuot. That’s when the Lieutenant Colonel running the show contacted me. He said that one of his units had seen a squad of VC retreat from the area, and that they were seen approaching a local village. He directed me to fly slow and low-level over the village in an attempt to draw their fire. He could then pin-point their location, and then he would send his troops in pursuit. Right! This was a classic example of the absurdity of this war. A total disregard for my life and reality. While he directed me to do the absurd, he did not tell me how to do it. So, I crossed over the village at very low-level, but not slow, rather at a speed of about 90 mph. If they shoot at me, I passed over so quick, I never heard it. Naturally, I didn’t see anything and they didn’t shoot. I was finally released, and we returned to Camp Coryell.

On September 21, we participated in another sniffer mission. The object of the search was to detect any NVA movement toward the newly established FSBs. The NVA seemed unusually quiet.

The alternation between combat assaults and sniffer missions continued until the middle of October. We were accumulating a lot of flight hours on the UH-1C gunships. I began to have trouble keeping the aircraft flyable. Our aircraft availability began to slip, and I was not able to field two gunship teams per day. Morale also began to erode. I had been away from Pleiku, our home base, for more than two months. The hard driving Commander of the 155th Assault Helicopter Company started making unfavorable reports back to Pleiku. It did not help when three of my enlisted men got into a fight at a local bar, and they ended up in jail. Not only did they get into a fight, they also assaulted the MP’s when they arrived to arrest them. I had also purchased non-regulation baseball caps (black caps with the word Avenger on them) for my flight crews to give them a distinct look while they were OPCON to another unit. This all resulting in me receiving a not-so-pleasant visit from our Company Executive Officer, a Major Jones. He gave me a good old Army Ass Chewing. A reminder that a Commanding Officer is responsible for everything a subordinate does or fails to do. He had no interest in discussing the mission, or the real problems, like maintenance, that I faced on a daily basis.

A few days later, we had an aircraft accident at Camp Coryell. Two of my pilots, WO1 Wilson and WO1 Storey, had taken a gunship to an aiming point on the runway. The procedure called for the mini-gun sight to be fixed on a distant object, and then the crew would align the mini-gun barrels on the same object. In order to complete the procedure, the weapon system had to be in the armed position (energized). Some time during the procedure, the door gunner needed to ask a question. He moved up to the Aircraft Commander’s (AC) window (right side of the aircraft), and he motioned for the AC to lower his side window. As the AC transferred his hands from the cyclic control to the window, a 2.75-inch folding fin rocket launched from the right rocket tube. One of the fins of the rocket sliced the man’s calf muscle to the bone. I happened to be near the aircraft (I was collecting log books from the aircraft on the flight line), when the rocket launched, and I saw the man fall to the ground. Because I had been trained in advanced first aid, I immediately applied pressure in his groin to retard blood loss from the leg. As I did so with one hand, I used the other hand to pull my belt from my pants, and then released pressure to use both hands to apply a tourniquet to his leg. Within a few minutes medical personnel arrived and took over aid. The airfield tower had observed the accident, and they alerted the aid personnel. The man (PFC Garcia) was flown to the 71st Medical Hospital in Pleiku; he survived but lost the leg.

During the second and third week in October, I continued to struggle with the maintenance of aircraft. As the weather continued to improve, the Commanders wanted more field activity. Each of the FSBs were sending out platoon sized patrols to scour the country side for the NVA. We performed more sniffer missions. When not flying those missions, we were moving units around, or we were placed on standby at Nhon Co and Gia Nghia. I had five aircraft and was obligated to have four flying each day. Our long-term average of availability for the UH-1C was 67-75%. One day a gunship came back to the airfield after a fire mission with tail rotor vibration. Upon examination, we found that expended brass casings from the door machine guns had contacted the spinning tail rotor blades, and they had made large gouges in the surfaces. I immediately ordered replacement blades from Pleiku. When they arrived, I noticed that they were not “C” model blades, but “H” model blades. Another delay ensued due to the fact that we were so remote from our parent organization. Another day, we had a short-shaft failure. The short-shaft is the connection between the engine and the transmission gear box, which drives the main rotor. The replacement short shaft arrived in a standard shipping container. Clearly stamped on the outside of the container were the words, “Condemned. Do not use”. It was clear that the part was to be shipped to depot maintenance for rebuilding, not to me for use in the field. Another delay for which I was ultimately responsible.

To make matters worse, the Commander of the 155th AHC was reporting exceptional, if not unbelievable and fraudulent, availability. During the current period, the 155th AHC reported UH-1H availability of 97.1%, and UH-1C availability of 96.5%. At pre-flight one morning, I did not have four helicopters available for the mission. The Commander of the 155th AHC told me to pre-fight one of his aircraft, and to fly it on the mission. After pre-flight inspections, I reported that all three of his aircraft, that they said were available, were in fact found to be of “RED X” status. That means they were not flyable. One had just come out of major maintenance, and it did not have hydraulic fluid in the transmission. Another, I “Red X’d” for having a master caution light that was inoperable. The third one did not have an operable weapon system. The Major was steaming mad. At mid-morning, a Tactical Emergency call came into the operations section. I volunteered to fly the “RED X” aircraft with the inoperable master caution light. A Falcon (a 155th AHC gunship) and I flew the mission. We reported into a FAC southeast of Duc Lap. A small reconnaissance patrol had encountered a larger, but unknown sized, NVA unit. They were in heavy contact. The Falcon gunship and I assaulted the target as directed by the FAC until we expended our armament load. After returning to Camp Coryell, we learned that we were credited with thirteen NVA KBA (killed by air). The Major’s anger had not subsided. He called me aside. He exclaimed, “What the hell are you doing? This morning you “Red X’d” that aircraft, and now you fly it”. I answered, “Battalion Policy says that I am not required to fly an unsafe aircraft. But when other lives are on the line, I am willing to risk mine”. He had no response, and he just walked away. This reminded me of the conflict that I had with the artillery Lieutenant Colonel at Dak To. They just could not comprehend truth and morality. They were only into winning at the game they were playing, even if it cost lives.

On October 22, 1969, everything changed. It was Game On; time for combat. The 7/17th Cavalry reconnaissance teams reported that the NVA were on the move. Large NVA units were leaving their sanctuary in Cambodia. Regimental sized units moved into position north of Bu Prang near FSB Kate, one moved south of Bu Prang near FSB Annie, and another moved south of Duc Lap near FSB Helen. Additional NVA units remained north of Bu Prang and west of Duc Lap. FSB Helen was the first base to be hit. The NVA clearly understood that they could not take Bu Prang, or Duc Lap, so long as the artillery FSBs were there to provide artillery fire against them. On October 25, a multi-battalion force, with supporting artillery, began an assault on FSB Helen. The NVA shelled the FSB with mortars, recoilless rifle rounds, and 122 mm rockets. Ground probes were frequent. The intensity of the attack increased over the next two days. Fire missions by the helicopter gunships from all supporting units were frequent. We would fire around the perimeter of the base, then return to Nhon Co, or Gia Nghia, to refuel and rearm. We would then be sent to the next site that had the highest priority for fire support. We had to be woven in between the supporting artillery fire, and the Air Force fighter-bombers. Even at the time, the actual, individual missions became a blur.

Over the next three days, the casualties mounted at the FSB. Damage from the big rockets began eroding their ability to defend the base against ground attacks. On October 28, the decision was made to abandon the base. Helicopters from the 155th AHC, the 48th AHC, and the 189th AHC were all used to execute the evacuation. Close-in fire support by gunships was needed to get the slicks in and out of the FSB. The evacuation included a lot of dead and wounded. The Chinooks were able to extract the artillery pieces, but they suffered physical damage to the aircraft. The FSB was abandoned on the 29th of October.

As the NVA claimed their victory at FSB Helen, the assault on FSB Kate began. During the previous evening a patrol from Kate had triggered an ambush on a prominent hill north of the base. That site would become known as Ambush Hill. A “Spooky” gunship responded and reported the movement of a large NVA force toward FSB Kate. By the morning of the 29th the bombardment of Kate had begun. The NVA used mortars, recoilless rifles, RPGs, B-40, and both 107mm and 122 mm rockets. Later they would also fire 85 mm, 105mm, and 130 mm artillery from Cambodia. The allied artillery from FSB Annie, FSB Susan, and Bu Prang were fired in support. The massing of artillery was so great that helicopter gunships were useless. We only provided close-in support when helicopter slicks had to go into the base to retrieve wounded or to drop off critical supplies.

The defenders of FSB Kate were able, with the aid of the massed fire support, to repel the NVA ground assaults. The Air Force used F-100s, F-4s, A-1Es, and B-52s to fight back the NVA assaults. However, the constant aerial bombardment began to take its toll. Before long the casualties began to mount. Damage to critical equipment, including the artillery pieces, increased.

On October 30, FSBs Martha and Annie came under sustained attack. Late in the day, the CIDG and artillery elements on FSB Martha were relocated to Duc Lap. Like all the other operations this one took place under heavy ground fire. The courage and valor shown by the helicopter crews of all the Assault Helicopter Companies was awe inspiring. Many acts of valor went unrecognized.

Two Joker helicopter gunships (48th AHC) were diverted to FSB Kate to assist in the emergency medical evacuation of several wounded. While making a strafing run on enemy positions, as the medical evacuation helicopter approached the landing zone, one of the gunships was hit by ground fire and crashed. There were no survivors amongst the four-man crew. During the same day, there were three additional gunships and one Chinook hit by ground fire in the vicinity of FSB Kate. The NVA were now employing 51-caliber and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns against us.

As the casualties mounted, the Commander at FSB Kate, SF Captain Albracht, made repeated requests for reinforcements from the ARVN Commander. None were sent. The situation on Kate deteriorated rapidly. We were no longer able to resupply the garrison by air. Kate was running low on food, water, ammunition and medical supplies. It appeared as if they would soon be overrun. At 2:00 am on the morning of November 1, slicks and gunships of the 155th AHC were successful in making an emergency delivery of critical supplies. But, by mid-morning, it was clear that the FSB was no longer defensible. The 5th Special Forces Group finally made the decision to abandon FSB Kate. An escape plan was hastily developed. The 189th AHC and other OPCON units inserted two companies of Mike Strike Force fighters into an LZ 3 km northwest of FSB Kate. The defenders of Kate were to depart the FSB after dark, and then E&E (escape and evade) along a route that would take them north toward Cambodia, and then west to link up with the Mike Strike Force. Finally, they would travel, as a combined force, south to Bu Prang. The operation was successfully executed with the loss of only one US serviceman. The group arrived at Bu Prang the following day. Captain Albracht would later be recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor.

With the abandonment of FSB Kate, the decision was made to also extricate forces from FSBs Annie and Susan. That work was completed by the end of the day on November 1. The saga of the “scarlet sisters” was now complete.

On November 2, we were on standby at Nhon Co Airfield. First, word came in that a convoy had been ambushed along Route 14, approximate 7 km northwest of FSB Dorrie. We were preparing to launch in response when we were notified that another gunship team was responding. Shortly thereafter, another Tactical Emergency alert came over the radio. A scout team of the 7/17th Cavalry, consisting of two LOH (light observation helicopters) and two Cobra gunships, had been ambushed by a large NVA unit. The ambush occurred near FSB Helen, which was near Duc Lap. Both LOHs and a Cobra were shot down. The remaining Cobra provided cover and called for help from their air borne infantry platoon. They were able to recover the two Cobra pilots. One survived, but the other one had died in the crash. The two LOH pilots and their observers were captured by the NVA.

That night, plans were prepared to combat assault a Battalion of the 22nd ARVN Rangers into the field near the site of the helicopter ambush. The ARVN unit would search the area in an attempt to find and recapture the helicopter crews.

When I reported into operations the next morning, I was told that all of the 189th AHC helicopters had been ordered back to Pleiku immediately. Another unit of the 10th Aviation Battalion, the 181st Assault Helicopter Company, would be replacing us.  I would later learn the reason for the change. The ongoing Battle of Bu Prang-Duc Lap had consumed all the assets of the 155th AHC and the 10th Aviation Battalion. In the background was the Secret War of Southeast Asia. The B-50 mission, Project Omega (FOB 5), had been operating out of Bam Me Thuot. The massive influx of NVA into Cambodia, opposite Duc Lap, and now into Quang Duc Province, had curtailed the across-the-border operations. Those mission were being shifted to the area of Cambodia opposite Northern Dar Lac and Southern Pleiku Provinces. The 189th AHC would now be flying missions for Command and Control South, with a launch site at Duc Co. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The Battle for Bu Prang-Duc Lap would continue until late-December, when the NVA suddenly moved back across the border into Cambodia. I would visit Bu Prang one more time before my tour ended. See “Close to freedom but they are still trying to kill me”.

 

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THE SECRET WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

By David Lee 189th Assault Helicopter Company

 

189th AHC