Reds were planning to assault firebase
Submitted By Ted McCormick
S&S Vietnam Bureau…..
FSB Evans, Vietnam – Red troops surrounding FSB RIPCORD were planning to launch a coordinated attack to overrun the post similar to earlier efforts when the 101st Airborne Div. troops pulled out Thursday, division officials said Friday.
Information available indicated that the Reds were consolidating their strength in preparation for the assault, the officials said.
The decision to remove 200 troops from the base and two infantry security companies nearby came Tuesday when division officers decided that air and artillery strikes would ruin the enemy surrounding the camp more effectively and cheaply than using infantry troops, military sources said.
The troops were evacuated from the tiny, figure eight shaped outpost-the 101st’s westernmost outpost-during six and a half hours of what some soldiers called “living hell” as more than 500 mortar shells slammed into the base.
The men were evacuated from a tiny landing zone at the south end of the outpost. Three Americans were killed and 20 wounded in the escape, according to the US command.
One CH47 Chinook helicopter, attempting to remove some of the six 105mm howitzers was virtually destroyed on 18 July when another CH47 with a load of ammunition, crashed on the pad and then was hit by a mortar round.
In the earlier Chinook incident, Red machinegun fire from near the camps perimeter touched off the downed helicopters fuel tanks which then exploded the 3,500 rounds of ammunition, causing the barrels of the six nearby howitzers to melt. One man died in the incident, according to the command.
They found several small caches of mortar rounds and other ammunition, but in the words of one high-ranking officer; “Things were pretty quiet”. Then came July. The NVA began to make their presence felt with occasional mortar or recoilless rifle attacks. First, just a few shells, then progressively more and more until, said one platoon leader, at least 50 rounds a day came crashing inside the pocket size perimeter.
The gutsy cannon cockers of B Battery, 2/319th, 101st Abn. Div, A Battery 2nd 11th Arty Div. and A Battery 2nd 11th Arty, XXIV Corps, manned their guns round the clock in an attempt to silence the incoming. They averaged an hour or two of sleep each night, and racked up almost a Purple Heart apiece.
“What was it like? Did you ever crap your pants?” said a 105mm-howitzer gunner from 2/319th “The incoming just didn’t land outside (the sandbagged gun emplacements), it was hitting right inside the pits. Our guns fired 1.500 rounds the first day”.
But on July 18th, a series of events denied Ripcord half its artillery and started the brass thinking about pulling out. A Chinook with a sling load of 105mm ammunition was hovering above Bravo Battery when enemy fire knocked it from the sky. Minutes later, the helicopter burst into flames and soon the high-explosive shells began cooking off, first one or two at a time, then bigger and bigger explosions. The men had little choice but to abandon their guns. Many hours later when the last shell had spent its explosive force, they returned to their gun pits. The once lethal cannons were so much scrap.
Before everything started going bang recalled Hinman, he and a pathfinder ran over to the downed Chinook with fire extinguishers.
“The ship was on fire,” said Hinman, and there was a guy trapped underneath. He was badly burned and several guys with shovels were trying to dig him out. We tried to bank the fire with sandbags, and then the M-60 ammo in the chopper started cooking off.
“The rounds for the big guns were ready to blow too,” recalled Hinman, so there was little the battalion commander could do except order them to run for their lives. Their effort to save the downed crewmen were in vain. “Some rounds came in while we were trying to get him out,” said Hinman, emotionally, “God damn those….Gooks!”
CS gas from some of the exploding shells began to spread over the firebase and made life miserable for the next several hours. But more than the discomfort, the loss of the quick firing, pinpoint accurate 105mm howitzers worried troops.
“I feel the 105mm is a better defensive weapon than the 155mm”, said one veteran squad leader. “It must have been a great morale boost for the NVA”.
For the next four days the incoming increased in volume. Still, said one NCO, morale was good. “We just dug in a little deeper”, he said matter of factly.
“You don’t know where they’d land”, reported SP/4 Steve Hanson. “I’m not afraid of a dink I can see, but that…..”
As the hours passed, brass back at division headquarters decided the base was more of a liability than an asset. Conclusion: get the hell out.
“We knew we were leaving the night before,” said SSGT Tom Rubsam, a 23-year-old acting platoon leader. ” They told us we weren’t being beaten off and that Ripcord had performed its function. Tactically, it was a good move. When I heard about it, I thought, Let’s go!”
While the weary GI’s on Ripcord began the task of getting ready for the extraction slated to begin before dawn, SP/4 Floyd Alexander was sitting several miles away, still trying to get use to the fact that he was still alive. Early that morning the young recon forward observer was with Alpha Co 2/506th when it was hit hard by the NVA.
“We were getting ready to leave our NDP when the mortars started popping. Then the satchel charges, and AK-47 fire. We were overrun”.
A burst of fire killed the artillery FO and blinded another GI near Alexander. They were separated from the rest of the Co, so Alexander covered the wounded GI with his own body and played dead for over three hours. The worst moment came when an NVA soldier padded silently over to where the two GI’s lay and stared at them for several minutes.
“He was carrying an AK-47 and wearing sandals,” said a visibly shaken Alexander. “He stared at me, and then he just walked off. I was scared and praying the whole time, believe me”.
That night Alexander and his wounded buddy rejoined their company. “I didn’t find out about Ripcord until we got back from the field.” he concluded.
Back at Ripcord, the grunts sweated through what they hoped would be their last night of purgatory. Dawn was stilling an hour away when the first “whump-whump”, of approaching helicopters announced the start of the extraction. One Chinook was shot down during the withdrawal, but the crew escaped intact. Ironically, the downed bird landed atop the already destroyed 105mm artillery pieces.
Fate still had its toll to collect from the battle weary soldiers. Three men, including the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Andre Lucas along with his XO were killed in a 120mm mortar barrage. 19 other US soldiers were wounded.
“He was a damn good CO,” said one soldier. “He was definitely for the troops, when the chopper crashed on July 18, he was right there with us trying to get the guy out who was trapped.”
The perimeter was steadily shrinking as helicopters ferried out load after load of GI’s sporadic incoming, as well as NVA anti-aircraft fire didn’t help, but chopper jocks still made textbook approaches.
“They did a helluva fine job”, said one trooper. “Another hour and I think the dinks would have been in the wire”.
The Screaming Eagles were clustered around TOC, almost everyone toting an M-60 machine gun. Suddenly, recalled Hinman, :I noticed that my wallet was missing.” So under covering fire of his buddies, the youthful sergeant raced back down the hill to look for his missing billfold. He found it made a zigzag dash back to TOC. “There was .35 cents and a picture of my girl inside,” said Hinman.
Finally, the base was deserted. As the last choppers headed for safer territory, fighter-bombers rained death on the enemy below. The battle for Ripcord was over.
“We could have given them a good fight anytime they hit the wire,” said one grunt, “And we could have defended the base indefinitely, but for what?” said one grunt. We’re going to Eagle Beach for a party tomorrow. We’ll take more casualties there that we did at Ripcord.
(Note: Official US causalities for Operation Texas Star were 409 US soldiers KIA, NVA causalities are not know although officially the US government has the figure at 2.004 NVA KIA during the operation. The NVA have been reluctant to release any information concerning this battle, the units involved, their tactics or their strategy as the battle evolved.