Cacti War Stories


Edited by Wiley "Tiny" Dodd
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PAVN Ambush

by TJ Blue/Alonzo Jones
Nov. 1966

REMEMBERING THE TIME
20 NOVEMBER, 1966

THOMAS J. (TJ) BLUE & ALONZO JONES

COMPANY B, 1ST BATTALION, 35TH INFANTRY
3RD BRIGADE TASK FORCE, 25TH INFANTRY DIVISION

SETTING THE STAGE:

The firefight on November 20, 1966 is best understood by looking at the activities that preceded that day. In 1965 the People's Army North Vietnamese (PAVN), later called the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), had established major supply centers and infiltration routes in eastern Cambodia and western Vietnam in preparation for a planned effort to attack across the Central Highlands and cut South Vietnam at its midpoint. They had established a major concentration of forces in the vicinity of the Chu Pong (mountain) and in November these forces were engaged by elements of the 1st Cavalry Division (AM) in what became known as the battle of the Ia Drang valley. This stopped them for a time but the force buildup continued.

Because of this threat, in December 1965 the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division was diverted from its projected location west of Saigon to Pleiku in the Central Highlands. This major population center is where two major roads cross: QL 19 running basically east-west from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border and QL 14 running north-south from Dak To in the north to Bam Me Thuot in the south.

After establishing a base north of the Pleiku airfield and the I Field Force Vietnam Headquarters at Camp Holloway, the 3rd Brigade Task Force began aggressive operations in coordination with the 1st Cavalry Division (AM) under the name 'Operation Paul Revere' (I-May 10 to July 31; II-August 1 to August 25 and III-August 26 to October 21) to target PAVN units attempting to infiltrate from Cambodia and move to the more populated areas near the South China Sea. The primary PAVN units, arrayed generally from south to north, were the 33rd, 95B and 101C Regiments. There were numerous encounters, including a major battle near the Ia Drang valley on July 3, which helped to bring an increased focus on this area.

When Operation Paul Revere III began in late August operational control of the 3rd Brigade Task Force reverted from the 1st Cavalry Division (AM) to I Field Force Vietnam. The mission was to continue to interdict the border area near highway 19 and to the east and south of Duc Co. Although there was daily contact, most of it was light, engaging snipers or small groups of individuals

The arrival of the 4th Infantry Division in September to a new divisional base (Camp Enari) near Dragon Mountain south of Pleiku set the stage for the next phase of operations to clear the Central Highlands west of Pleiku.

The area to the north of QL 19 and west of Pleiku was effectively controlled by the PAVN except for the area near a US Special Forces compounds at Plei Djrang and Duc Co. This area, known as the Plei Trap Valley, was to be the focus of Operation Paul Revere IV that was executed from October 18 to December 25 and in addition to the 3rd Brigade TF, included brigade sized units from the 1st Cavalry Division (AM), the newly arrived 4th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

The 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry (The Cacti Green), less Company B had been deployed to Plei Me had been working the area around Duc Co since early September. Since mid October the battalion had been working the area near Duc Co and Company B had been moving through the hilly, triple canopy jungle terrain west of the Se San River near the Cambodian border. In early November there had been minor encounters with primarily PAVN support and medical units and their security elements. Company B had found a PAVN hospital complex and a small logistics base complex.


Map of the Company B area of operations west of Pleiku from September through mid December 1966

In mid-November, Company B had moved to a location less than 10 km from the Cambodian border and found a little opening in the jungle canopy. They began clearing the area and, after much work by the engineers, this would eventually be LZ 510A. The establishment of a base this far west not only provided the much needed fire support from three 105mm howitzers of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Artillery but for the first time in weeks allowed for a normal resupply for Company B rather than the kick out of water, C-rations and LRRP's from a helicopter hovering above the triple canopy jungle. Bravo not only had time for "real" food, hair cuts and other personal care activities but also for replacement personnel to join the unit (the Company got a new commander: Captain Lloyd Yoshina, the 1st Platoon got two replacements: Private First Class Paul Sausedo and Private Ralph W. Blackerby and the second platoon also got two replacements: PFC Harry Kay Varner and one other individual). Two of those company replacements would play key roles in the encounter on November 20: Captain Yoshina who had moved from the Battalion S2 position to command the company and Private Ralph W. Blackerby who was reassigned to the 1st Platoon.

Blackerby (previously Sergeant Blackerby), had recently been released after serving a sentence at the Long Binh Jail (LBJ) for activities the previous June that included impersonating an officer (he had pinned Lieutenant bars on his fatigues), 'acquiring' a jeep and attempting to drive to Saigon, allegedly to protest the war. Unfortunately (for Blackerby), he and his companion were stopped near the base of the Mang Yang Pass at a road side checkpoint manned by MP's from the An Khe based 1st Cavalry Division. That was the last bit of free movement he had until his November arrival at LZ 510A.

On November 19 during a morning patrol to the south of the company defensive positions at LZ 510A, the Scout Dog that accompanied 2nd Platoon alerted and after observing movement, the platoon engaged a small enemy force. There was no return file and after a rapid advance they found a number of rucksacks of the type worn by PAVN supply forces. We had found many signs that this area was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply lines for the PAVN and many of those killed or captured were very young. Two weeks earlier after crossing the Se San River, a young PAVN supply carrier had been captured by the 1st Platoon and had been made to talk by "forcing him" to eat ice cream. This was something that he had never previously experienced.

The 1st Platoon took over the lead at this time (the point platoon and squads were rotated frequently) and continued to the southwest in the direction the suspected enemy force had moved. This particular section of the jungle had been torn up by some type of a bombing mission, possibly an Arc Light, code for a B-52 run of 500 pound bombs. After continuing for a few hundred meters the point squad came around a bend in the trail and found a young PAVN supply carrier sitting on the side of the trail eating a US C-Ration date pudding that had been discarded (he really must have been hungry). The individual was captured without firing a shot. The rest of the patrol was quiet and the captured soldier was taken back to LZ 510A when the company returned for the evening. That evening the company took on a heavy resupply because we knew it would probably be a number of days before we would see another accessible area in this thick jungle terrain.

Sunday morning, November 20 was sunny and warm as the company moved north from the Battalion base to interdict the supply and infiltration routes the North Vietnamese were using as they passed from Cambodia back into Vietnam. The order of march for the movement was: 3rd Platoon led by 1LT James Hancock with SSG Jack Pollard as the Platoon Sergeant; the Company headquarters group commanded by Captain Lloyd Yoshina; 1st Platoon led by 1LT Thomas (TJ) Blue with SSG Isidro Santos as Platoon Sergeant; and bringing up drag was the 2nd Platoon lead by 1LT Anthony Caggiano with SSG Alonzo Jones as Platoon Sergeant. The company was moving in company file with each platoon providing its own flank security as they moved along the well worn trails that were part of the overall Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the PAVN. There was little sign of recent enemy use of the area as the company crossed the Nam Sathau, a northwestern branch of the Se San River which the company had crossed weeks earlier further to the east. Since it was the dry season, each platoon took a little time to allow the filling of canteens as they crossed the river which created short breaks between the units (something that would turn out to be beneficial a short time later).

The terrain north of the river crossing site was thick jungle which restricted movement and slowed the pace of the company. The broad finger of ground on the west sloped up about 60 meters to a small ridge line about 30' higher than where the main force was moving. On the east the ground sloped down about 50 meters into a dry stream bed and thicker jungle. The main trail followed the finger generally to the north and up toward the mountainous ridgeline that forms the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.

It was now late morning. The 3rd Platoon had moved about 600 meters from the stream crossing; the Company Command Group and the 1st Platoon were a short distance behind and the 2nd Platoon was still at the stream. It was at this time when the 3rd Platoon point element came under intense machine gun and small arms fire.

The 3rd Platoon reacted immediately and began returning fire. LT Hancock moved the rest of his platoon up into a semi circular perimeter facing north to prevent any advance by the enemy force. As covering fire was provided by the platoon, the point element pulled back bringing their WIA with them. At this time there was only enemy fire coming from the north, the direction the company had been moving.

Captain Yoshina and the command group moved to a position to the rear of the line established by the 3rd Platoon. Because of the triple canopy jungle, use of the company mortars was not possible, however the forward observer immediately called for 105mm artillery support out of LZ 510A. He also placed an initial call for air support. Unknown to most in the company, Captain Yoshina had contracted malaria and the morning march had increased his fever significantly. This would have implications as the day continued.

LT Blue in the 1st Platoon realized that the high ground on the left flank of the company was almost totally exposed and so he directed the two lead squads to pivot and start moving up the ridge. The squads had gotten no more than 20 meters when the entire hill side seemed to erupt in enemy fire. The PAVN had been well concealed in 'spider holes' and covered and camouflaged trenches. The men of the 1st Platoon returned the enemy fire with a vengeance. The dense underbrush precluded the effective use of hand grenades and M-79 grenade launchers so most of the fire was from M-16's, M-60 machine guns and a couple of 12 gauge shotguns.

It was during this early exchange of fire that one of the 1st Platoon's machine guns had a malfunction and the gunner called out for assistance. A short time later, PVT Blackerby who had just rejoined the platoon, was observed rather calmly disassembling the M-60 and then returned a fully operational weapon to the gunner. This would not be the last time that Blackerby distinguished himself this day.

SSG Santos had been moving at the end of the platoon with the 3rd Squad and he brought them up and tied them into the end of the 2nd Squad. He also informed LT Blue that the 2nd Platoon was no longer in contact with the rest of the company. This meant that there was an extended gap and the company could be attacked piecemeal by the enemy force. It was at this time when some of the enemy force was observed moving south along the ridge, attempting to encircle the main part of the company. They obviously were not aware of the 2nd Platoon's location.

The 2nd Platoon was still at the stream crossing when the PAVN ambush was sprung on the 3rd Platoon. They immediately started rapidly moving up the trail to the north with LT Caggiano traveling with the lead element and SSG Jones with the trail element. Their movement was so rapid that for a short period, the trail element broke contact with the rest of the platoon. SSG Jones started back, in an attempt to recover the other men, but was cut off by what was later known to be 2 PAVN Soldiers, with AK-47's, who had moved in close. SSG Jones instinctively turned and attempted to fire and hit the ground when a burst of automatic weapons fire hit his hand and ripped through his trousers. Being unable to find the trail element he returned to the rear of the platoon. A short time later there was movement to the rear and squad leader SGT Meisner arrived with the other men. With this rapid advance, the 2nd Platoon was able to engage some of the PAVN force that had been moving south and prevented it from surrounding the rest of the company. Later, LT Blue would describe the 2nd Platoon's approach as being like the "cavalry", arriving just in the nick of time.

With the arrival of the 2nd Platoon the company was now able to establish a complete perimeter defensive position with the 3rd Platoon on the north, sweeping down into the low area to east where they linked with the 2nd Platoon who continued across the southern part of the perimeter. The 1st Platoon was on the west side between the 2nd and 3rd Platoons and facing up the ridge line. The company command group was positioned in the center of the perimeter. It was now close to noon and although the volume of fire had dropped from the initial encounter there were still periodic violent exchanges of fire whenever any of the friendly forces attempted to push out toward the enemy positions.

The location of the fight was beyond the range of the 155mm artillery batteries and there were only three guns from the 105mm artillery battery located at LZ 510A. There was also very limited helicopter gunship support in the area at the time so the primary fire support was fixed wing aircraft. The first on the scene was a pair of USAF B-57 Canberras that had been diverted from an interdiction bombing target. This was not a successful engagement, however; because of the terrain, enemy ground-to-air fire and the speed of the aircraft they were unable to drop any ordnance.

Next on the scene to provide close air support were two A-1E Skyraiders from Bien Hoa Air Base. These proved to be the perfect aircraft to provide support in this triple canopy jungle environment. The A-1E could fly low and slow and had a long logger time on station. But before they could begin an engagement they needed to be able to identify where the friendly and enemy forces were located. Coordinating this support from the fighters through the Forward Air Controller in his Birddog aircraft was the company artillery forward observer who called for throwing a colored smoke grenade in front of the friendly positions and then providing directions from the smoke to both the friendly and enemy positions.

This call for smoke went to the 1st Platoon on the west side of the perimeter. The thick undergrowth that prevented the effective use of other grenades was also preventing anyone to get one of these markers more than a few meters in front of the friendly positions. Again, Private Blackerby appeared and maneuvered to a position well to the front from which he was able to throw a smoke grenade almost to the enemy positions. This allowed the FO to direct the Skyraiders initial bombing run. After expending their major ordnance the A-1E's returned at a closer range firing their 20 mm guns. LT Blue helped walk the fire back toward the friendly positions. As the enemy resistance diminished the perimeter was pushed out in front of each platoon. In the 2nd Platoon area very sharp contact was made with a number of remaining enemy soldiers but quick action overcame the enemy. It was now early afternoon and the combined efforts of the air, artillery and ground forces caused the enemy to break contact and withdraw to the north.

Bravo Company had walked into a near perfect "L" shaped ambush by an estimated reinforced main force PAVN rifle company and sustained significant losses. The PAVN soldiers appeared to be very healthy and uniformed (hammocks across their bodies diagonally and etc.) fighting force, not a resupply unit. The enemy had prepared the site very well and their initial execution was done perfectly. The point element of Bravo Company had been stopped and that placed the major portion of the company in the PAVN kill zone.

There are probably three key factors that turned the tide that day:

First was the unplanned initial separation of the 2nd Platoon to the rear of the rest of the company. When they arrived with guns blazing they hit the flank of the PAVN force that was trying to encircle the rest of Bravo Company. This violent engagement stopped the completion of the PAVN ambush plan.

Second was the effective close air support provided by the USAF A-1E Skyraiders. Their ability to stay on station for extended periods and to be able to bring their fires close to friendly forces helped to displace the enemy from their established covered and concealed positions.

Third, and perhaps most important, were the valorous efforts by many members of the company. LT Hancock, despite having lost almost an entire squad during the initial execution of the ambush and also being wounded himself in the early part of the action, stabilized the 3rd Platoon and prevented the enemy from making an assault from the north. In the 1st Platoon area, Private Ralph W. Blackerby was later awarded the Silver Star for his heroic actions throughout the fight.

With the enemy having withdrawn and area now secured the refitting process could now begin. Bravo Company had five men killed (SSG Paul Brown, PFC Harry Varner, PFC James McCalvy, PFC Horace Young and PFC Richard Massine), including four from the 3rd Platoon who were lost in the first minutes of the fight. There were more than 20 wounded (including Lt James Hancock, PFC William Kline, PFC Roger Hogston, PFC James Steele, PFC Kenneth Andrelis, PFC Ediberto Benavides, SSG Alonzo Jones and others) with casualties in each platoon. The enemy losses are still unknown although there were at least 10 confirmed killed that day.

Because of the triple canopy jungle, ammo and water resupply were dropped from above the trees. The terrain also required the dead and wounded to be evacuated using a 'jungle penetrator'. This is a heavy metal device that can be lowered from a helicopter through the trees and then the KIA or WIA is strapped in a litter and pulled back up through the trees. With the large number of casualties, this was a long and slow process that was not completed until near dusk. Included in the evacuated personnel was the company commander, Captain Yoshina. The malaria-related fevers precluded his continuing at that time.

The company consolidated its position with Alpha Company for the evening just north of where the fight had occurred. Although everyone was very tired, few slept that evening. Over the next few days both Alpha and Bravo companies continued pursuing the enemy north with periodic exchanges of fire but no major contacts. Late on Wednesday a 155 mm round hit very close to the 1st Platoon, wounding three. It was later determined that this 'friendly fire' incident was caused by a quadrant error.

Thursday, November 24 started like every other day that week. Despite being at a very high elevation the temperature was warm. The sun tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the jungle canopy. The enemy continued to evade our force and there was no contact. Mid afternoon arrived and a resupply helicopter positioned itself above the trees and water, ammo, rations and a very special treat dropped through the triple canopy. Insulated containers of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and dessert hit the ground. The stop to eat was brief, the food was mixed together but after the actions of earlier in the week, that was one of the best Thanksgivings any of us who were there would ever experience.