Three Days in May
by Ben Crosby
May 27th to May30th
THREE DAYS IN MAY
THE BATTLE OF TAN PHONG
(US ARMY RETIRED)
This is the story of three grueling days of combat by a single US Army Infantry battalion against an enemy battalion from the North Vietnamese Army which was set upon annihilating the American Battalion. In May 1967, US Forces numbered well over 400,000 and foreign Free World military forces had topped 52,000. The enemy had deployed an equal or perhaps more troops into South Vietnam via infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs south just inside the Cambodian and Laotian borders. As war protesters marched in New York and San Francisco (said to number in excess of 100,000) the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) was preparing for its unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. The leadership of the NVA had no idea that February 1968 would be a tactical and strategic disaster for them. TET was a bust.
But in the spring of 1967 the NVA intended to make this US Infantry battalion pay for blocking their route of resupply from the coastal lowlands. These lowlands provided vast amounts of rice consumed by the Vietnamese people. Thus, these paddies were a critical food supply necessary to the survival of the NVA in South Vietnam. And attempting to protect those resupply routes led to the battle of Tan Phong, known as Three Days in May.
This American battalion was unique. It was part of the 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division known as "The Bastard Brigade." Due to the unusual command structure that had evolved since the war had been raging for several years, the chain of command had become stretched shall we say? You see, this brigade was under the operational control, OPCON as it was known, of a task force named "Oregon" which was located at Chu Lai perched on the South China Sea coast north of Quang Ngai City. Task Force Oregon was under the operational control of the Third Marine Amphibious Task Force which was part of the war fighting forces located in I Corps, the northern most Corps in Vietnam. But since this Bastard Brigade belonged to the 25th Infantry Division which was located in Chu Chi far south of I Corps, it was administratively attached to the Fourth Infantry Division which was west of Pleiku, located in II Corps area of operations in the Central Highlands. So the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry was OPCON to Task Force Oregon, under administrative control of the 4th Infantry Division, fighting in the I Corps area of Vietnam while assigned to the 25th Infantry Division. It doesn't get much more confusing than that.
The battalion had recently fought a different NVA battalion along that disputed Cambodian/Laotian border just prior to deploying to the costal lowlands. Lieutenant Colonel Clint Granger led the battalion then and now. It was during this earlier battle that one of the Lieutenants, Stephen E. Karopczyc, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions above and beyond the call of duty. He continued to lead his platoon even though mortally wounded in his chest by holding that wound closed with his one free hand while he fired his weapon with the other at the attacking NVA. After that battle, the battalion redeployed to the costal lowlands and that is where we find us now.
The sun at high noon, May 27, blistered down on the double CONEX container that served as the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry known as "The Cacti Blue." Sandbags provided little if any insulation from the hot Vietnamese rays which pounded LZ (landing zone) Liz. It had been the headquarters of this Infantry battalion for a little more than a month. LZ Liz lay directly between two key VC/NVA infiltration routes into the central highlands from the coastal lowlands: highway 515 and the Son Tra Cau River. This point, 124 meters high, sat among the rice paddies. It had been named by the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Clinton Granger for his wife Elizabeth. LZ Liz would later become infamous as the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry --- the unit that caused the worst smear on the reputation of the US Army since the Civil War: the My Lai massacre. These infiltration routes served the North Vietnamese Army. Guided by the Viet Cong to the coast on the South China Sea, the NVA unloaded enemy sampans of weapons, ammunition and medical supplies which they quietly slipped over the sandy beeches in the dark of the night.
The enemy hated the location of this strong American outpost. So they moved a full strength NVA battalion into the village of Tan Phong to do something about this thorn in the side of their secretly traveled route to and from the sea. The enemy mission was to overrun LZ Liz and kill all who worked there. But they talked on the radio one time too often. A radio intercept identified them and located the transmitter. Then the battalion at LZ Liz was notified.
At precisely 1200 o'clock the battalion S-2, the intelligence officer, got a secure radio transmission from the brigade S-2 informing him of the location of the headquarters of this enemy battalion. He immediately informed Lieutenant Colonel Granger. Granger was an extraordinarily experienced combat officer having served in Korea where he was awarded his first Combat Infantryman's Badge. He now could have a star on it showing two awards of this coveted badge.
"Damn!" said Granger, "we don't have any available force to go after them; everybody is committed. And half the time, these things don't pan out; especially if the info is old."
So the TOC jumped into action to locate some available force to air assault into the vicinity of this intelligence report to check it out; was it real,or was it not? Due to some questionable intelligence practices, leaders at battalion and below were not permitted to know the details of the collection methods and the time the information was gathered --- truly some bureaucratic tomfoolery; for, intelligence is like bananas; only good for a short time. Then they become rotten. Many reports of enemy command post activity had been rotten bananas.
The brigade S-3 agreed to release the Blues, an infantry platoon which was part of the 9th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division, to conduct an air assault nearby the reported enemy headquarters location, Tan Phong village. Twenty-five minutes later the Blues were landing in a dry rice paddy only a couple hundred meters from this suspected enemy location. They had only been on the ground a few moments when the first reports of enemy contact came back. The Blues had seen thirty or so heavily armed NVA in camouflaged uniforms moving to the northeast from their location. The Blues took the enemy under fire and called for artillery fire to hit the enemy locations.
For thirty minutes an intense firefight erupted between the Blues and the NVA. After an additional one-half hour of firing at fleeting enemy targets which seemed to be everywhere, the Blue Platoon was exhausted, suffering from lack of water and running low on ammo. They were calling, no screaming, for reinforcements as they had been defending against a well organized enemy force more than ten times their size.
The helicopter loaded with water and ammo for the Blues flew into a supposedly secure landing zone but it came under heavy anti-aircraft fire from several weapons to the north. The pilot, though wounded, managed to fly the chopper out of the danger area before it crashed west of LZ Liz. Troops from Liz marched out to the crash site rapidly to secure the downed helicopter and extract the wounded pilot and his crew.
The reinforcements for the Blues were the ready reaction force, Team Penn, which consisted of C Troop, 3rd Battalion, 4th Cavalry (which was OPCON to the battalion) and the Reconnaissance Platoon of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, a strong but highly mobile force equipped with M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC). Each APC had a .50 cal machine gun plus two M-60 .30 cal machine guns on the top deck. Lots of firepower without question. This was just what was needed to find and fix this enemy unit in place that had taken up fighting positions not much more than 1000 meters northwest of LZ Liz.
Granger told brigade what had happened; it looks like this is not a rotten banana report as the enemy located in the vicinity of Tan Phong is a sizeable force. More troops are needed to attack them now. Granger knew that he needed a better combat ratio in order to attack. Normally three to one is the minimum combat power ratio necessary to take on a defensive position. Granger's "B" company was released back to him. Helicopter lift ships (UH1-D) each capable of carry six fully equipped infantry soldiers were designated to move Bravo into the action.
Granger thought about this enemy battalion. What are they doing here only a thousand or so meters from my headquarters? What's their mission? If they were planning to attack LZ Liz, they have positioned themselves well but now we know where they are. We'll give them just what they asked for. Or is this one of their deceptions. Are they setting a trap for our forces,an ambush of some sort? While analyzing the situation, it became clear to Granger that action was needed now. A delay could be disastrous. A plan of attack was developed that could be executed quickly, and with violence, to destroy this enemy unit the size of which remained somewhat of a mystery. But Granger could guess.
Team Penn (Charlie Troop, 3/4 Cav and the reconnaissance platoon of 2/35 Infantry) rolled south to take up a blocking position north of the village of Tan Phong. Meanwhile, Company B of the 2/35 Infantry was loading aboard the lift ships. Company B, under the command of Captain Ralph Walker, planned to make the combat assault into a landing zone secured by the Blues and then join with the Blues to attack north to push this enemy unit into the waiting weapons of Team Penn. The old hammer and anvil game --- that was the plan.
The second flight of helicopters carried more of B Company into the area of the fight. As soon as they approached the landing zone enemy automatic weapons opened fire again. Another helicopter was badly hit. It crashed only two-hundred meters from the landing zone. The troops on the ground saved the crew before the helicopter started to burn from diesel pouring out of its bullet riddled fuel tank. It was a total loss.
So far this battle was in favor of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) as two helicopters had been downed within minutes of starting the attack. Maybe this was their plan: ambush each flight as it landed.
B Company moved out of the landing zone away from the destroyed chopper, to link-up with the Blues who were under extreme pressure --- some say they were in danger of being annihilated. But Granger didn't believe that. Team Penn arrived from the north and immediately came under heavy enemy fire. The reconnaissance platoon led by First Lieutenant Krout, dismounted from the APCs. He attacked southwest to break through to the blues just outside the village of Tan Phong. The APCs from Team Penn rolled thru the rice paddies blasting away with their .50 cal machine guns into Tan Phong. Now the playing field was beginning to tilt in Granger's favor.
Granger, flying above the action in the Command and Control (C&C) helicopter, now had a fighting force capable of overrunning this enemy unit. Supported by artillery and gunships, Granger's combat power was growing---he was not going to let the enemy gain an advantage especially when he brought to bear all his forces both on the ground and in the air.
About 1600 hours, Recon platoon broke through the enemy lines and linked with the exhausted Blues. As Krout later explained he hadn't seen that many smiles on that many faces since the last Bob Hope Christmas show. Team Penn rolled in as the enemy began their oft-executed fading away process. Our many wounded were loaded aboard the APC's for transporting back to a safe landing zone for medical evacuation via Dustoff helicopters which were already enroute.
But as Yogi Berra famously said, "It ain't over, till it's over." And this was the case here as the enemy had not faded away but remained hidden in spider holes and concealed bunkers. So when the last platoon from company B attempted to land, the enemy automatic weapons fire forced them to turn away. Lt Krout's recon platoon returned fire and attempted to sweep back through the village only to come under vicious enemy resistance. Gunships poured minigun fire on the enemy soldiers below. An armed AC-47, known as Spooky, was ordered on station. Friendly firepower was massing on Tan Phong. The enemy would pay.
All friendly elements closed together to form a perimeter for the night. Shovels flaying away, dirt flying, foxholes appeared setting up interlocking fields of fire from machine guns and automatic rifles. Claymore mines were placed in likely enemy routes into the defensive position. Granger's plan was to resume the attack at first light in the morning with additional troops from the 1/35 infantry who released their C company to his operational control (OPCON). But for tonight, Granger planned to go on the defensive using the starlight scopes (night vision devices) to detect any enemy advance on the perimeter.
Around 0315 in the morning, the enemy launched a mortar attack on the friendly forces in the vicinity of Tan Phong. Unfortunately, one enemy mortar round struck directly on the top of Captain Penn's APC. He was killed instantly. Counter battery fires from LZ Liz soon silenced the enemy mortars but it was too late as we had lost a key leader from the three-quarter Cavalry. The second day had started badly.
Granger immediately started planning to deploy his forces to trap the enemy who now had made it clear that they had no intention of abandoning the battlefield. It was more than ever starting to appear as an ambush engagement designed by the enemy to inflict the maximum casualties on the US forces. Granger was unhappy about that. He planned to never let that happen.
Granger decided to use C Co, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry which was OPCON to his battalion, to air assault them northwest of the battle area. There was a landing zone just at the edge of the mountains where the rice paddies ended but before the thickly covered hills provided concealment from aerial views. That concealed area was a likely place for the enemy to keep their reserves. Granger would air assault C Co. into that landing zone between any possible enemy reserve locations and the village of Tan Phong. Thus they could block any NVA attempt to reinforce from the hills. Granger took an additional gamble; he air assaulted his Recon platoon into a landing zone in the mountains west of where C Co, 1/35 Infantry had just landed. He hoped that this would trap some of the enemy between the two American units. Recon was all on its own with no possible support from any other unit that is other than artillery and gunships.
In spite of Granger's best efforts to confuse and trap the enemy, the only contact with the NVA that day was in the vicinity of the Tan Phong village where sweeps by the US units forced the enemy to retreat into the open rice paddies to the west where they were exposed to aerial observation. When they did so, they were easy targets for the circling gunship miniguns which blasted away at the fleeing NVA. By the close of the second day, eighty-seven NVA lay dead killed by the devastating fire from the helicopters.
A captured prisoner revealed to the Battalion S-2, that this NVA unit was the 60th Battalion, 1st NVA Regiment, one of the best trained enemy units in Quang Ngai Province. Their mission had been to attack LZ Liz and overrun it. But Granger's men had found them first.
Granger looked over the battle situation and by late afternoon decided that most likely the enemy would realize that the US forces had overwhelming firepower. There would be little use for them to continue the ambush plan. He concluded that they would ex-filtrate out of the battle area so Granger elected to set-up ambushes on their likely egress routes into the mountains toward their relative safe area - base area 123 as it was known to us.
All units were resupplied and assigned ambush positions. By 2215 hours, all units were in their respective ambush positions most of which were located in the Song Tra Cau valley or along Route 515. Although day two started off with a disaster, it ended fairly well thanks to the devastating firepower of helicopter gunships and APCs.
It seems that the battalion was having its share of extremely bad luck as day three started with another disaster just like the day before. The Company B ambush position was located by the enemy which attacked using mortars and direct fires from close-in enemy positions. A little after 2:00 o'clock in the morning the enemy force had closed to within a few meters of company B. The fighting became intense in the dark. The Company Commander was mortally wounded. Captain Ralph Walker, a graduate of West Point, died as he attempted to rally his men to fend off this latest enemy assault. Armed gunships arrived on the violent scene dropped flares and placed accurate automatic machine gun fire on the enemy positions guided by the men of Company B. By about 3:00 am, Granger was airborne over the fighting area controlling the incoming fires from gunships. An armed Air Force gunship AC-47 "Spooky" arrived over the battle area to drop more flares. It fired its three miniguns each with a rate of fire of about 2000 rounds per minute. Streaks of red tracers lit up the nighttime sky like a fire belching dragon of mythical fame. Such a killing machine threw the odds in our favor leaving the enemy no choice but to abandon the battle area. Or so Granger thought.
Soon the medical evacuation helicopters could land with relative safety. With them arrived Company B Executive Officer, Lt Russell Chapman, who immediately took command. Unfortunately, he had been there less than an hour when he was wounded in the head but continued to fight until evacuated sometime later. Clearly, the enemy had not yet given up as previously thought so Granger decided to add additional troops to the hard fought Company B perimeter. At about 4:00 am, Reconnaissance Platoon fought their way into the defensive perimeter under heavy enemy fire. As they did, they overran the last enemy position capturing their machine gun. That was the end of the enemy resistance. The day, or we should say, night now belonged to us. At least that's what we thought.
But as is more often the case than not, we were wrong. About a half hour after silence had settled over the battlefield --- only medical evacuation helicopters could be heard above the shouting of orders to cover this route and move this gun to there. Officers encouraged men to prepare for the worst. It came.
From the east, a least expected direction, came a massive enemy assault in a last ditch effort to overrun the men who had been constantly fighting since just after midnight. Some enemy soldiers broke through the defensive perimeter, only to be slaughtered by cross-fire from dug-in Cacti soldiers. Finally, it was over. Enemy bodies lay everywhere some just feet inside the row of foxholes that defined our side of no-man's land.
It had been a fight that will be remembered long after the Vietnam War has been analyzed and compartmentalized and digested by historians, politicians, and soldiers alike most of whom will have little understanding of what went on with these men on both sides of battle known as three days in May.
The after-action report lists three Americans killed-in-action, twenty-seven wounded and one died later of his wounds. One-hundred sixteen enemy soldiers were killed, at least, that is the number of bodies counted that were left on the battlefield not to mention many weapons including recoilless rifles, mortars, machine guns and the well respected AK-47 automatic rifles.
Three days in May were among the most intense fighting since the Battalion had arrived in the coastal plains. It would be the battle many remembered as the one that broke the back of the North Vietnamese Army in this area. From then on, it was mostly the dangerous local guerrillas, the Viet Cong, who would fight to keep this rice bowl area in their hands. But they would fail. By the time the famous, or perhaps infamous, Route One, The Street without Joy, had been opened through this area, the war had begun to turn in our favor. It was only a matter of time. Three days in May --- that was the pivot point.