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No Place to Hide
A Company at Nui Ba Den
By Bill Sly
iUniverseCopyright © 2016 Bill Sly
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Actions around An Loc
2/2 (Mech) May 22, 1969–July 10, 1969
May 23, 1969
For the three days of May 23, 24, and 25, 1969, the 2/2 (Mech) was engaged in a huge battle with the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) at An Loc, a town sixty miles north of Saigon. After the final day, the 2/2 (Mech) had killed an estimated 350 North Vietnamese and had destroyed the fighting effectiveness of the entire North Vietnamese 141st Regiment. The battle resulted in numerous awards for the men and the battalion, including a Valorous Unit Citation for the battalion, a Medal of Honor for S. Sgt. James Bondsteel, two Distinguished Service Crosses, fourteen Silver Stars, numerous Bronze Stars, an ACMs with V. This action was part of an overall successful operation stopping an NVA offensive involving two divisions whose mission was to cut off forward elements of allied forces around Tay Ninh, Dau Tieng, An Loc, and Quan Loi.
In early June of 1969, the men of the 2/2 (Mech) participated in a four-day battle against North Vietnamese regulars and again defeated them soundly, leaving 160 dead North Vietnamese in the field.
The men of the battalion had come to look upon themselves as pretty bad characters who could and did beat the NVA and the Viet Cong (VC) at every turn. These battles caused a number of casualties, and many of the men who were decorated were also wounded. However, due to the tremendous turnover in personnel, by the time the battalion got to the Black Virgin, only four of the men who had won the Silver Stars were still with Alpha.
June 23, 1969
On June 23, 1969, the battalion moved to Dau Tieng (see map), a base camp in the Tay Ninh province, along with the rest of the First Brigade of the First Infantry Division. During the evenings, the NVA would rocket and mortar the compound.
The battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. Newell E. Vinson, who was born in Pennsylvania to a Navy family but grew up in California and on the East Coast. He called Alexandria, Virginia, home. He had been instructing social studies classes at West Point prior to coming to Vietnam. He had been scheduled to take over the battalion on the sixth of June, but the battalion was then in a battle and the ceremony didn't take place until three days later.
The battalion command sergeant major was James E Knox. The forty-five-year-old Knox was an extremely able soldier and NCO. We felt we were very lucky to have him as our go-to guy. 2/6 remembers Command Sgt. Maj. Knox in this way: "It is often a truism to say that someone is a 'soldier's soldier,' but this is the least I could say about Command Sgt. Maj. Knox. He was a veteran of WWII and Korea and was on his second tour of Vietnam. With the scar that ran down his cheek to the corner of his mouth, he looked like he may have also been one of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae." 2/6 remembers that Command Sgt. Maj. Knox loved his soldiers and took great care of them. He would also often counsel junior officers if they requested him to do so. Joe states, "In 1979 Mike Mulhern and I attended a First Infantry Division reunion at Fort Riley. As soon as we arrived at the reception, Command Sgt. Maj. Knox recognized us and briskly walked over and carried on a long conversation about our serving together. It meant a lot to the both of us. He was a class act."
On June 26, Lt. Col. Vinson sent out a company minus two platoons to find the enemy who had been firing mortars on Dau Tieng. The force killed one mortar team and captured a mortar and some small arms. The perimeter was quiet for days afterward, and the battalion concentrated on improving the perimeter of Dau Tieng that had been neglected by the soldiers of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division, who previously held the base campCHAPTER 2
July 1 at 12:00 p.m.
The following people took command of various units at this time:
Lt. Col. Newell Vinson, commander of 2/2 (Mech) June 9, 1969
Capt. Richard Buckles, commander of A 2/2 (Mech) June 25, 1969
Capt. Carrol Howard, commander of C 2/2 (Mech) July 7, 1969
Maj. George Forrest, S-3 of 2/2 (Mech) July 9, 1969 (Had been XO)
Joe Ladensack, or 2/6, has vivid memories of Maj. George Forrest. "After my in-country training at Di An, Headquarters of the First Infantry, I boarded a C-7 caribou aircraft and flew to Lai Khe. The first person I met was the 2/2 (Mech) XO Major George Forrest, who was waiting for me in his jeep. After welcoming me to the battalion, he drove me over to the Tactical Operations Center and sat me down for a briefing. I remember his soft voice and the attention he paid to me. He told me the battalion was up on Route 13 and in the town of An Loc. Thunder IV was their base. 'In the morning,' he said, 'you will take the convoy to Thunder IV, and Lt. Col. James (Jacques) Michienzi, battalion commander, will assign you to either Alpha or Charlie Company.' Maj. Forrest went on to say that both Capt. Combs, Alpha Company CO, and Capt. Kelly, Charlie Company CO, were excellent teachers for young lieutenants. 'If you listen and learn you'll be okay. However,' said Forrest, 'they have very different teaching methods.'"
It was some twenty-three years later that 2/6 read We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway and learned that Capt. George Forrest, as company commander of Alpha 1/5 Cavalry, had participated in the Ia Drang Valley Battle of LZ X-Ray. He was also deeply involved in the Battle of LZ Albany. "He was without a doubt the best officer that I served under in my brief army career," 2/6 stated unequivocally.
New people to the battalion HHC were Capt. Tom Kelly, S-2 of 2/2 (Mech) as of July 7, 1969, who had been C 2/2 CO; and Maj. Jay McDivitt, XO of 2/2 (Mech) July 9, 1969, who graduated from the Citadel and was on his second tour in Vietnam. The first was also with the First Infantry Division.
It was quite unusual to see this many new people in charge of a battalion, but with officers changing command on a six-month basis, which was common practice during an officer's twelve-month tour, there were always new people coming and going. Many soldiers couldn't even tell you the names of their officers because of the constant turnover.CHAPTER 3
Actions in the Michelin
July 6 at 11:00 p.m.
On July 6, 1969, Second Platoon Alpha 2/2 (Mech) popped a bush (fired from an ambush) and inflicted casualties on the NVA. This was the first action for Capt. Buckles, and he was happy about it even though S. Sgt. Christopher was hit twice in the leg and had to be evacuated.
Capt. Richard L. Buckles was twenty-seven years old and from Pacific Grove, California. He had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and was on his second tour in Vietnam. His prior tour had been with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, where he had commanded a platoon of tanks. He was well liked by his fellow officers, and they reported that they thought he was a competent, even-tempered officer who would be there when the fight started. He may have been a little too nice, though, as he was much less of a disciplinarian than his predecessor, Capt. Dudley "Pete" Combs.
The Second Platoon was headed by 2nd Lt. Joseph Ladensack, known as 2/6. He had gotten a BA degree from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in history with a minor in Oriental studies and had gone through ROTC. He also had an elementary knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, and he had been to jungle training in Panama. He was about four months ahead of his classmates in going to Vietnam.
Pete Combs said, "Joe is one of the finest young lieutenants that ever wore the uniform and brave to a fault. Joe Ladensack to this day remains a little bit of an enigma to me. I just never saw anybody so brave and so quick all the time. Maybe Hugh Evans is the exception, but I wasn't there when Hugh first came in. Either those guys did not have any fear or they had somehow conquered it to an extent that I wish I could have conquered it."
In his role as platoon leader, 2/6 won a Silver Star in the May battles and a Bronze Star in June, and he would win a second Silver Star before July was over. In all, he left Vietnam with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars. Many of the people in his platoon knew him only as 2/6. The "2" stands for Second Platoon, and the "6" means he was in command of itCHAPTER 4
Movement to Tay Ninh
July 7 at 12:00 p.m.
On July 7, Alpha was told to join the battalion back at Dau Tieng and then move to Tay Ninh until the twentieth of July. The battalion would be placed under the operational control (op-con) of the First Brigade of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division.
Bravo 2/2 (Mech) was assigned a "Rome plow security mission" in the Trapezoid Region. A Rome plow is a civilian bulldozer with a blade in the front that is used to knock down the jungle. The blades were made in Rome, New York. One recon platoon and the flame platoon, with four tracks that fired burning napalm rather than bullets, would stay at Dau Tieng for security. A "leg" company, B 1/2, commanded by Capt. Jerry Wilson, was assigned to the battalion as it moved toward Tay Ninh.
Capt. Buckles briefed his platoon leaders, saying, "The attachment to the Twenty-Fifth Division is due to the belief that a major NVA offensive is expected around Tay Ninh, the third-largest city in South Vietnam, in order to disrupt the Paris peace talks. The battalion was to be based at Fire Support Base Buell, which was between Tay Ninh and Nui Ba Den.
Nui Ba Den, also known as the Black Virgin Mountain, was a large granite mountain on the plains northwest of Saigon. It had three peaks known as Nui Ba Den, Nui Cau, and Nui Dat. The last peak could not be seen except from the west, so most people thought there were only two peaks. The large one was Nui Ba Den and the smaller one was Nui Cau, which the Americans called the Little Sister.
Nui Ba Den rises 986 meters above sea level, while the town of Tay Ninh is only 15 meters above sea level and 10 klicks away. The Americans were told that the mountain got its name a thousand years earlier when some Vietnamese maidens leaped to their death off the mountain rather than to submit to the invading Chinese Army. It looks black from a distance because of the number of trees on it — hence its name, the Black Virgin Mountain.
In writing his wife, Lt. Sergio Lugo of Charlie Company said, "By the way I'm going to send you some pictures of the Black Virgin Mountain, which is located here at Tay Ninh. It's possibly, I don't know if it's the highest point in Vietnam or what, but down here in the southern sector it is. Everything else is flat around there so you see it a long way away. It's three thousand feet high, and the first pictures I've taken are from about two thousand feet and you can spot it from Dau Tieng, which is something like ten miles away. You can spot it from Tay Ninh pretty easily. Well, Tay Ninh is right next door to it so that's the reason you don't have any difficulty spotting it. I remember at An Loc, we were 30 miles away and it stood out like a sore thumb. It's possibly the highest, like I said probably the highest landmark in southern Vietnam so it stands out pretty much. When you're close to it, it looks really huge. Clouds come over, it has a cloud cap on it most of the time and it's pretty."
On the way to Tay Ninh, the front sprocket of the APC that SP4 Al Howard was driving fell off. He and his gunner, SP4 Sammy Labastida, had to return to Dau Tieng for repairs.CHAPTER 5
July 7 at 4:30 p.m.
About four thirty in the evening, the 2/2 (Mech) reached FSB Buell, which was situated between the Black Virgin Mountain and Tay Ninh. Charlie Company passed through it and established an RON site west of Buell. B 1/2 also went west of Buell and established a separate RON. Alpha 2/2 (Mech), the recon platoon, and battalion HQ took up positions inside of Buell. 2/6 noted that Buell was a very impressive fortification.
2/6 described it this way: "Buell had a large berm that was free of vegetation and trash. The berm had several layers of concertina wire in front of it and on top of it. The wire was in good shape. It was peppered with trip flares and all types of 'anti-intrusion devices.' The base perimeter was made up of infantry bunkers and 'hull defilade' tank and APC fighting positions. All the bunkers had 'Field of Fire' charts inside with claymore mine and 'Fougasse' detonators. It looked like a model you would find at Fort Benning."
Years later 2/6 found a Twenty-Fifth Division newspaper article about a battle fought on August 18 and 19, 1968. An estimated NVA battalion had attacked FSB Buell. At one point in the battle, the NVA had breached the perimeter only to be driven off by artillery pieces firing directly into the invaders. "Buell was so well defended because it had to be!" 2/6 concluded.
Lt. Col. Vinson was told that the Twenty-Fifth Infantry operated differently than the First. In the Twenty-Fifth, the Artillery had control of the Infantry. Vinson needed permission from the Artillery every time he wanted to move First Infantry Division troops. The Artillery could and did fire at any target they wanted to, at any time they wanted to, and they did not inform the infantry battalions when they were going on a fire mission. It was up to the infantry battalions to keep the artillery informed of the Infantry's position and to stay out of their way. Vinson was told that the United States had control of the top and the bottom of the mountain, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment had control of everything in between. The battalion and the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division began a running battle over lack of support and correct battle tactics. Vinson noted that in the Twenty-Fifth Division, the brigade commander maneuvered companies, and the battalion commander maneuvered platoons.CHAPTER 6
Actions around FSB Buell
July 8 at 6:00 a.m.
After spending the night at Buell, Alpha Company began a routine that would be followed for the next few days. They conducted a "Mad Minute" before starting the day. A Mad Minute was one minute of continuous firing from every gun in the company at any enemy that might be trying to sneak up on the Americans. It also gave the infantry soldiers a chance to use up ammunition that may have pitted or magazines that had rusted. It was better to find out what maintenance needed to be done before going into battle.
Alpha then conducted a RIF (Reconnaissance in Force, formerly known as Search and Destroy) around Nui Ba Den and south of it to get some idea of the terrain. The men of Alpha noticed what looked like cooking fires on the side of the mountain.
Alpha 2/2 (Mech) set up a RON site at the "Old Fort" on the southeast side of Nui Ba Den. After they had set up their RON site, they watched F4's conduct bombing raids on the side of the mountain.
July 9 at 7:00 a.m.
July 9 was again routine for the men. Alpha began the morning with a Mad Minute and then got ready to move out. On that day, they went north and west of the Black Virgin. They saw many signs of enemy activity. They saw trails in the elephant grass that indicated enemy movement leading toward the mountain. The battalion made note of this and made plans to send a platoon from Charlie Company on an ambush patrol the next night.
At the battalion level, an experienced S-3, Maj. Warne Mead, was assigned to head a joint American/South Vietnamese task force, and he was replaced by Maj. George Forrest. Maj. Forrest was a thirty-one-year-old from Leonardstown, Maryland. He attended Morgan State University and got his military commission through their ROTC program.
Charlie Company was given the mission of going to Tay Ninh late in the afternoon. They were able to do some sightseeing and went by the magnificent temple of the Cao Dai religion. Cao Dai combines aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.
On the tenth of July, Alpha conducted a Mad Minute and went out to RIF. They went twenty miles and went to see Cu Chi, the base camp of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division. It gained notoriety as a base camp that was built directly over the tunnels of the NVA they had been sent to find.
It was getting pretty confusing as to what we were doing there.
That evening 1 Lt. Toney Mathews had a surprise for the NVA on the mountain. Mathews was a West Point graduate who was op-conned to Alpha 2/2 (Mech) as their Forward Observer. He was assigned to Delta Company 1/5 artillery, and it was his job to call in artillery whenever Alpha was in a firefight. He also worked with mortars, helicopters, and jets. His call sign was Daring 1. After serving in the military, Mathews had a career as a nuclear engineer.
Mathews had been studying the mountain and had made some estimates of the locations of lights that had been seen the night before. On that night when the flashlights came on, Mathews called the Twenty-Fifth Artillery commander with the coordinates and asked for a zone and sweep. The Twenty-Fifth fired all six guns, moving left to right and top to bottom. In a few minutes, they had fired about three hundred rounds.
Excerpted from No Place to Hide by Bill Sly. Copyright © 2016 Bill Sly. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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Table of Contents
About the Author, xi,
Glossary of Terms, xv,
Glossary of Nicknames, xxvii,
Chapter 1: Actions around An Loc — 2/2 (Mech) May 22, 1969 — July 10, 1969, 1,
Chapter 2: Battalion Leadership, 3,
Chapter 3: Actions in the Michelin, 5,
Chapter 4: Movement to Tay Ninh, 6,
Chapter 5: FSB Buell, 8,
Chapter 6: Actions around FSB Buell, 9,
Chapter 7: Dismounted RIF in the Jungle, 11,
Chapter 8: Mission for July 12, 1969, 14,
Chapter 9: B-52 Strikes, 15,
Chapter 10: Change in Mission, 25,
Chapter 11: The General's Visit, 30,
Chapter 12: No Place to Hide, 38,
Chapter 13: APCs, 53,
Chapter 14: Medevac Zone, 64,
Chapter 15: HQ Reaction, 83,
Chapter 16: Alpha 2/2 (Mech) New Mission, 100,
Chapter 17: Charlie Company Mission, 103,
Chapter 18: Back to Buell, 111,
Chapter 19: After the Battle, 116,
Chapter 20: Afterward, 129,
Chapter 21: Captain Dudley (Pete) Combs, 131,
Chapter 22: Battle of Nui Ba Den-Reflections of Joe Ladensack, 137,