“I Could Feel Doom”: U.S. Marines and Australians Fought For Survival At Ngok Tavak in Vietnam

Simply after 3:15 a.m. on Could 10, 1968, troopers in a South Vietnamese militia group often known as a Civilian Irregular Protection Group approached the principle gate of the U.S. Particular Forces compound at Ngok Tavak. They yelled: “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! Pleasant, pleasant.” Gate guards held their fireplace—a tragic mistake. It was a entice. These CIDG males weren’t buddies. They have been the enemy.

Ahead Working Base Ngok Tavak, a small outpost in Quang Tin province, 10 miles from the Laotian border, was a satellite tv for pc of the big Kham Duc Particular Forces camp, 4 miles to the northeast. Ngok Tavak was surrounded by rugged mountainous terrain lined with lush, largely uninhabited jungle. Freeway 14, nothing greater than a footpath and unusable for automobiles, ran previous the bottom to the Laotian border. A small grime airstrip was in a valley 500 yards north of the bottom.

Capt. John White

Ngok Tavak was an outdated French Overseas Legion fort on a small ridge surrounded by a double-apron barbed wire fence and an unmarked French minefield. The principle place consisted of two rectangular units of earthen breastworks, one enclosing the opposite. The outer breastworks measured roughly 55 yards by 70 yards, and the internal about 30 yards by 50 yards, surrounded by a 6- to 8-foot berm with combating positions constructed into it. About 20 yards from the fort and parallel to 1 wall ran a trench about 7 toes deep and nearly 10 toes large. It was crossed by a small wood footbridge that led to a cleared space the French used as a parade floor.

The ahead working base was commanded by Capt. John White of the Australian Military Coaching Workforce Vietnam. His pressure was a blended bunch, comprising 113 males within the eleventh Cellular Strike Drive Firm, shortened to Mike Drive, consisting of militia fighters from the Nung individuals (an ethnic Chinese language minority), together with two Australian warrant officers, three U.S. Military Particular Forces troopers, three South Vietnamese particular forces males and three interpreters. There was additionally a 30-man CIDG platoon, positioned exterior the bottom’s perimeter.

Including firepower to the bottom was a 44-man U.S. Marine artillery detachment, Delta Battery, 2nd Battalion, thirteenth Marine Regiment, fifth Marine Division. The unit consisted of 1 officer and 43 enlisted, together with a Navy hospital corpsman.

Delta Battery furnished two M101A1 105 mm howitzers, designated Delta X-Ray, to supply artillery help for long-range patrols between Ngok Tavak and the Laotian border. The detachment, commanded by 1st Lt. Robert L. Adams, was airlifted by helicopter to Ngok Tavak on Could 4, together with rations, ammunition and a three-quarter-ton truck, much like a pickup. The 2 howitzers have been within the northeastern portion of the compound behind earthen breastworks 3 to 4 toes excessive.

The day the detachment arrived was marked by its first casualty. Lance Cpl. Bruce Lindsey was killed whereas making an attempt to rig a hand grenade as a booby entice.

“I suppose [it was] an omen of the dangerous issues but to return,” Lance Cpl. Tim Brown stated, whereas Lance Cpl. Greg Rose remembered: “I may ‘really feel doom,’ just like the grim reaper was shut at hand.”

Nung soldiers, South Vietnamese of Chinese descent, who fought at Ngok Tavak in the 11th Mobile Strike Force Company, receive treatment for their wounds after being evacuated. / AWM P11058.003

On Could 10, because the intruders entered Ngok Tavak, a mixed pressure of about 200 defenders was up towards 500 to 600 North Vietnamese Military troopers. The attackers headed for the .50-caliber machine gun place protecting the principle strategy to the bottom. It was manned by three Marine lance corporals, Rose, Joseph Cook dinner and Paul Czerwonka, cannoneers from the two-gun 105 mm howitzer detachment.

The enemy assault pressure began throwing hand grenades and satchel costs, inflicting heavy casualties on the Marines. “A deafening explosion erupted to my proper,” recounted Rose, whose colleagues on the machine gun submit grew to become casualties as Czerwonka was killed and Cook dinner badly wounded. “I noticed a bunch of the enemy run by with flamethrowers lighting up the perimeter.”

Two corporations of the NVA poured by way of the hole. “When the assault started the NVA got here proper up the street yelling and firing as if there had been nothing to cease them,” Cpl. Raymond Scuglik recalled. Lance Cpl. Raymond “Butch” Heyne and Pfc. Robert Lopez have been killed on the entrance berm. Pfc. Thomas Blackmon was wounded. Lance Cpl. James Garlitz got here throughout Blackmon as he moved to a firing place. “I attempted to assist him, and once I was making an attempt he was shot within the head,” Garlitz stated. “He was gone, so I needed to depart him.”

Concurrently, the NVA pounded Ngok Tavak with 60 mm mortar fireplace. The primary three rounds hit “increase, increase, increase,” recalled Cpl. Henry Schunck. Pfc. Barry Hempel was killed by one spherical, which detonated an artillery ammunition storage space and set on fireplace a three-quarter-ton truck.

The explosion and fireplace silhouetted the attackers.

The NVA assault scattered the Marine detachment—cannoneers, radio operators, ammunition technicians, a truck driver and a cook dinner—forcing them to struggle as squaddies from one- and two-man positions scattered all through the bottom. The NVA attackers have been confronted by small arms and machine gun fireplace from many instructions—entrance, flanks and rear, which confused and disoriented them.

Lance Cpl. David Fuentes, a Mexican American of slight construct, had gone to sleep along with his shirt and boots off, carrying solely a cutoff pair of utility trousers. He discovered himself completely ignored by NVA troopers, who mistook him for one in all their very own. As they rushed previous Fuentes to get to the weapons, he felt like he was at a turkey shoot. “I used to be standing there bare-chest with no footwear on and the NVA and whoever else was attacking us, so I used to be taking pictures them wherever I may,” the corporal stated. “And after they got here in with a satchel to explode my gun, that actually pissed me off. Every little thing was concentrated to get into the weapons, however they have been operating proper by the Mexican.”

Schunck rushed from the protecting cowl of his place close to the command bunker to an deserted 4.2-inch mortar emplacement on the heart of the compound in a extra uncovered place. Though wounded within the leg, Schunck tried to fireside the weapon, however he was instantly attacked by an enemy soldier with a flamethrower. The Marine shot and killed him. Schunck then left his place to tug a significantly wounded comrade to cowl. With one other Marine, he moved to an 81 mm mortar, which they fired at advancing NVA troops till they ran out of ammunition. Schunck was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

Pfc. Paul Swenarski was napping when the assault started. He grabbed his rifle and took a place alongside the fort’s wall. “I had two journal belts and 4 hand grenades,” he stated. “I ended up in a gap within the wall with Cpl. Richard F. Conklin and a .30-caliber machine gun.” The 2 males stored up a galling fireplace on the NVA. “We obtained their consideration, they usually began throwing grenades and automated weapons fireplace at us,” Swenarski added. “We have been each hit a number of occasions. They fired an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] into our gap and that put us out of enterprise.” These heroics led to a Navy Cross for Conklin.

Scott “Doc” Thomas, a Navy hospital corpsman, was sleeping when the primary explosion erupted. He grabbed his medical equipment and began for the artillery command heart. “On the best way, I bumped into two wounded, not too dangerous as I bear in mind, put battle dressings on them and obtained as much as run,” he stated. “Explosions—grenades, mortars, don’t know which—ended up in an open pit that had rice and different shops.” Schunck was there, and Sgt. Glenn Miller, a U.S. Particular Forces member, jumped in additionally. As Miller obtained up, he was hit within the head and killed immediately. “I bear in mind Schunck holding him,” Thomas stated. “A lot of foggy recollections after that.”

“Sgt. Miller made me fearless due to his fearless angle,” Schunck stated, “and I feel [he] had lots to do with us making an efficient protection. I consider he ought to have been awarded a Medal of Honor.”

Garlitz was asleep subsequent to his howitzer when the assault began. He ran to his combating place immediately adjoining to the opening within the berm. Virtually instantly, “three NVA troopers got here operating by way of the outlet within the berm in the direction of my gun,” he recalled. “The primary one I shot within the aspect of the top. It was fairly apparent that I had killed him.”

Four CH-46 Sea Knight choppers from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron HMM 265, like the one shown here near Da Nang in February 1968, evacuated Ngok Tavak’s survivors. / USMC Photo

Considerably shocked to have killed somebody, Garlitz didn’t have time to dwell on it. The useless man’s two buddies knew “the place I used to be at, so their consideration was directed at me,” he stated. “So, I shortly disposed of them.” Garlitz then seen a lot of North Vietnamese headed immediately for him. “I had a full journal at the moment, and I sprayed it into them, in all probability two or three bursts,” he stated. “I may hear individuals screaming and moaning.” The NVA focused his place and blasted it with a recoilless rifle and small-arms fireplace.

At one level, the Marines needed to confront an NVA flamethrower. “Issues obtained fairly bushy for some time,” Garlitz stated. “Flames have been rolling up excessive of my combating gap.” Pfc. Charles Reeder stated he “noticed the flame from a flamethrower set off our ammo bunker. The explosions despatched fragments throughout, and I felt some burns on my arms, however they have been minor.”

Garlitz additionally obtained “scorched” however believed he killed the flamethrower’s operator. The corporal pulled again to a place behind a berm within the northeast nook of the bottom, the place he got here throughout six different Marines. “My fellow Marines and me have been in such a place that we may nonetheless lay down fireplace in the direction of the opening within the berm,” Garlitz stated.

Pfc. Dean Parrett recalled that extra NVA fighters got here up the street to the Marines’ place. “We killed as many as we may on the time,” he stated. “There have been useless NVA mendacity all around the place. What a wake-up name for a bunch of younger Marines.”

Parrett discovered Lopez, the non-public killed early within the battle, on the berm and noticed that he was useless. He seen one Marine who was shot by way of each legs and in ache however, “he was pleased that he was nonetheless alive and earned the Purple Coronary heart.”

Adams, the lieutenant commanding the artillery detachment, had simply turned in for the night time after checking on his males and “was woke up by the sound of the attacking pressure,” he stated. “I obtained into my flak jacket I’d been utilizing as a pillow and was instantly hit within the head and again of my shoulder, in all probability by shrapnel from a mortar.” Workers Sgt. Thomas Schriver, Adams’ platoon sergeant, was badly wounded within the fingers and arms by the identical spherical.

Adams momentarily misplaced consciousness. When he regained his senses, he noticed an enemy soldier bounce the berm, throw a grenade and run towards the howitzers whereas spraying fireplace with a Soviet AK-47 assault rifle. “Two extra NVA bounce the berm, silhouetted by the burning three-quarter-ton truck.” Adams recalled. “I used to be capable of shoot at them. I may see that the assault was coming by way of the CIDG place.”

Though severely wounded, the lieutenant was capable of attain the bunker the place base commander White was coordinating the arrival of a Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship. About 4:20 a.m. the AC-47, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” arrived. White directed the plane to fireside across the perimeter, significantly the jap finish of the bottom, which the Nungs had deserted.

After some soul looking, the captain instructed Spooky to fireside on the 105 mm howitzers as a result of he was involved that NVA troopers have been within the positions. “There was no various however to have Spooky fireplace on the pleasant 105 mm howitzer positions, even though there might have been pleasant wounded within the place,” White stated. His request for gunships to hit the howitzers was by no means acted upon for some purpose. (The weapons have been destroyed by an airstrike after the battle.)

Spooky’s fireplace was concentrated exterior the perimeter. The gunship remained overhead dropping flares and offering a communication hyperlink till daylight, when an Air Drive pilot flew overhead to find out enemy positions and direct different planes in airstrikes. He referred to as in 30 strikes to maintain the NVA at a distance.

Towards daybreak, somebody yelled, “Tear gasoline!” The NVA had turned to a brand new weapon. Reeder, the Marine non-public, placed on his gasoline masks, “however it was scorching, and it felt like I couldn’t see,” he stated. “So I examined the air and located the gasoline was weak and never even near being as robust because the gasoline chamber we skilled again in coaching.”

After the ineffective gasoline assault, the NVA started a sluggish withdrawal, leaving the native Viet Cong unit, supported by mortars and recoilless rifles, to include the defenders.

At first gentle, the 2 Australian warrant officers led a counterattack with a number of Marines and a handful of loyal Nungs. The Marines had determined to go down combating. White and the remaining survivors “got here charging up over the berm and on the similar time we charged from the place we have been,” Garlitz and Rose associated in a joint assertion. The assault compelled the VC to withdraw past the perimeter wire. 

A UH-1H Huey medevac helicopter, name signal Dustoff 55, piloted by Military Maj. Pat Brady, commanding officer of the 54th Medical Detachment, started taking out the wounded below cowl of the airstrikes early within the morning. Brady made a number of journeys and hauled 70 wounded males to Kham Duc the place an assist station had been arrange on the touchdown apron. Surprisingly, the NVA didn’t fireplace on the medevac copter, marked with a big purple cross. “We didn’t take fireplace although I may see fireplace from the encompassing terrain going into Ngok Tavak,” Brady remarked. “Typically the disciplined NVA revered the Crimson Cross, however you may not rely on it.”

The NVA didn’t present the identical restraint for reinforcements flown in by two sections of Marine CH-46A Sea Knight transport helicopters from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron HMM-265. “Our flight of 4 was doing a radial across the hill whereas the Military medevac was loading up on the aspect of the berm,” defined Sgt. Robert Mascharka, one of many crewmen.

The primary CH-46 took heavy automated weapons fireplace and couldn’t take off after unloading the reinforcements. The second CH-46 dropped off its reinforcements and tried to select up the primary helicopter’s crew however was hit and exploded, blocking the touchdown zone. The crew was capable of get out, however one man suffered leg burns. A 3rd CH-46A tried to extract the crews of the downed birds however took so many hits that it was pushed off and needed to make a compelled touchdown at Kham Duc. Regardless of the injury, the helicopters have been capable of land 45 replacements. The fourth CH-46A left with out unloading any troops.

The following time Brady returned the touchdown zone was blocked and he needed to set the medevac’s entrance skids on a downed tree simply lengthy sufficient to select up the stranded aviators. Because the Huey lifted out of the zone, two CIDG males and one of many CH-46 pilots, 1st Lt. Horace “Bud” Fleming, grabbed the skids because the Huey flew away below heavy fireplace.

Fleming and one CIDG man have been unable to carry on. They fell to their deaths. A helicopter crewman had tried to know Fleming’s hand, however the lieutenant slipped free. Fleming was listed as lacking in motion and three years later formally declared killed in motion.

In the evacuation of Ngok Tavak, fallen troops had to be left behind. In 1999, recovered remains were identified as those of 11 Marines and one Special Forces man. Most are in a collective grave at Arlington National Cemetery. / A. Horan

White felt that his battered pressure couldn’t face up to one other assault. The bottom was low on ammunition, and the Mike Drive troops have been very nervous. Fixed U.S. airstrikes throughout the place had not silenced the NVA’s sporadic 82 mm mortar fireplace. At 10:45 a.m., White sought permission to desert Ngok Tavak however was instructed to carry on as a result of assist was on the best way. The commander knew higher. The touchdown zone was blocked with wrecked helicopters. The street was absolutely ambushed. The bottom’s airfield was undoubtedly lined by enemy fireplace. White quietly made the choice to evacuate, regardless of the orders to stay.

White instructed his males to haul all of the issues they couldn’t carry to the command bunker, put them in a pile and rig it for demolition. Further weapons and gear have been collected, and the 2 howitzers have been disabled by thermite grenades (which include a chemical combination that burns at very excessive temperatures after the pin is pulled and may soften steel).

At 1 p.m., White gave the order to maneuver out. To clear an escape route, he referred to as for napalm strikes down the pathway that had been used for the principle NVA assault after which departed along with his surviving troops—a mixture of South Vietnamese militiamen, the Australians, Particular Forces and Marines. Of the 44 Marines on the base, 13 have been killed and 20 wounded. Solely 11 escaped damage.

The toughest determination was to go away the 13 useless Marines and one Particular Forces sergeant behind. There was no means the evacuees may carry the our bodies and struggle by way of the NVA positions on the similar time. “The American our bodies have been gathered and put collectively within the space within the fort behind my bunker,” White stated.

White led evacuees alongside the burning pathway, they usually cleared the bottom with out bother. They descended a hill, crossed a river and climbed a mountainside till they reached a ridgeline the place they hacked a touchdown zone out of bamboo. 4 Marine CH-46s got here in to select them up. The helicopters may solely carry about 10 at a time, so a shuttle service took the boys to Kham Duc, with every plane making two journeys.

By 6:30 p.m., there have been solely 20 males left. The pilot of the final CH-46 determined to take them multi functional load. He landed his two rear wheels on the ridgeline, holding his entrance gear off the bottom and dumped gas to lighten the plane. He ordered all nonessential objects to be thrown overboard. Weapons, ammo, helmets, protecting vests, radios and even the co-pilot’s helmet have been all tossed out. The Marines have been taken to Da Nang, the place they rejoined their artillery battalion.

The secretary of the Navy introduced the Delta X-Ray detachment with a Meritorious Unit Commendation “for extraordinary heroism in motion towards enemy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces through the protection of Ngok Tavak on 10 Could 1968.” White obtained the Australian Distinguished Service Cross in 2019 for his management below fireplace.

The entire males left behind have been listed as lacking in motion, but they weren’t forgotten. Brown, the lance corporal who noticed an unintended dying on Could 4 as a nasty omen, lobbied the Pentagon to conduct searches of the battlefield. Brown made three journeys to Vietnam beginning in 1993 to collect proof in help of excavating the realm.

In 1999, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command uncovered sufficient proof—bones, canine tags, wallets—to determine 11 of the 13 lacking Marines and the Particular Forces sergeant. “It took a very long time,” Brown stated, however “we did what we have been educated to do, to verify our comrades aren’t left on the battlefield…If it was me left on the hill, I do know they’d have come for me. I’m sorry it took so lengthy, however now we may give them a correct burial of their homeland.”

5 of the stays have been returned to their households. The opposite seven have been buried in a collective grave in Arlington Nationwide Cemetery. The our bodies of pilot Fleming, Inexperienced Beret Spc. 4 Thomas Hepburn Perry (lacking after the battle) and two Marines haven’t been recovered. V

Dick Camp retired from the Marine Corps in 1988 as a colonel after serving 26 years. He has written 15 books and greater than 100 articles in navy magazines. Camp lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

This text appeared within the February 2022 subject of Vietnam journal. For extra tales from Vietnam journal, subscribe and go to us on Fb.


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