BO TUC (LAKE OF FIRE)
Since the establishment of the large forward base at Katum with an airstrip, the NVA had to take wide detours around it coming in from their bases in Cambodia. The old French stronghold of Bo Tuc stood in the middle of a major detour route that would avoid the large Katum base camp. Bo Tuc is where the 4/9 Manchus were to set up yet another road block for NVA troops crossing over from Cambodia.
On December 18, 1967 I was on one of the last lifts for Alpha Company from Katum to set a fire base at Bo Tuc. The rest of Alpha Co. was already beginning to dig in when I got off the chopper. Bravo, Charlie, Delta Company, and a battery of 105 artillery were also arriving. It was a "small perimeter' for a battalion of Infantry and 105's to occupy. There was a lot cursing and frustration of where to find room to set up defensive positions. This planning was going on in between sniper fire and sporadic incoming 82 mm mortar fire.
Because we thought a ground attack would come at any time, we had to dig in hurriedly and were not able to make as strong a bunker as we would have liked. Since they ran out of room on the outer perimeter, they moved about 6 or 8 of us (Alpha Co.) to dig 2 man fighting positions behind one part of the perimeter as sort of a mini second line if that part of the perimeter was breached. My buddy and I were digging our foxhole when the position next to us yelled, "Hey, Man look what I dug up!" He was holding up an old French helmet with a bullet hole right through the front of it. We did not consider this a good sign and I began to get a very bad feeling about this place. There were many abandoned wells all over the place and you had to watch every place you put your foot down because you could have easily fallen in one. When Charlie Company came in they had to set up around the artillery because the outer perimeter was completed and there with no room left for any more positions. I remember thinking I was glad I was not in Charlie Company because being next to 105's during a fire mission can be a "deafening experience!"
At about 3:00 AM on December 19 all hell broke loose and the mortar rounds came pouring in and we all hunkered down in our hastily dug positions to wait it out and hope one didn't drop into our hole. We only had time to put two layers of sandbags supported by some flimsy sticks we had found; so a direct hit would have caved our position in or worse. There was a brief lull in the incoming mortar fire and then the outer perimeter positions began to fire. I could not see past the front positions but from the heavy fire, I knew this was a major ground attack.
I thought we were holding on pretty good until I saw the ammo dump explode in a huge fireball and watched in horror as the business end of a 105mm shell came spinning down and landed 20 feet from my foxhole. The 105 round was glowing with orange and red colors; it was smoking and would pop and crackle every few seconds. My buddy and I started to abandon our bunker to get away from the 105 shell that we thought would explode any second. But then the ammo dump had a second explosion and it was then that I saw NVA running toward us from where Alpha Co. positions were supposed to be......we were being over run! After a quick 2 second discussion, my buddy and I decided not to make a run for it because our own guys would mistake us for NVA and kill us in the dark. We decided to take our chances with the hot 105 shell and pray it didn't explode. We thought if the 105 shell didn't get us the NVA would but we were going to fight it out from our foxhole. There was a small dirt road type path directly in front of our position and the NVA would come running down it and the suddenly veer off about 40 to 50 yards from us and head toward the artillery positions. I was not disappointed that they did not continue charging down that path until they were on top of our position! My buddy squeezed in beside me and we were both now facing the inside of the perimeter since there seemed to be more NVA inside than outside the perimeter. All night long my buddy and I would relay information back and forth about what was each of us was seeing outside and inside the perimeter. My heart was pounding so hard I could hear it in my ears! We took some single shots every time the ammo dump flared up and we could see NVA moving. We didn't want to fire on full automatic because it would increase the chances of hitting our own people. The NVA appeared and disappeared so quickly, it was like shooting at a flickering shadow; there was not even time for a 3 round burst. The NVA would always duck down every time the ammo dump flared up and it was hard to get a clean shot. We never could tell if we hit one or he just dove for cover. There were explosions all night long and in every location; Bo Tuc was literally ablaze every where you looked! It was like being in the middle of Hell's Lake Of Fire. The ammo dump was exploding every 15 minutes, hand grenades exploded and rifle fire were all inside the perimeter, 155 mm and 8 inch heavy artillery from other fire bases lit up the surrounding woods of Bo Tuc, our own 105 artillery was firing round after round of bee hive shells point blank into the NVA, jets screamed in from Phan Rang and dropped bombs just outside the perimeter that sounded like rolling thunder, gun ships roared in with mini guns blazing away with rounds hitting only yards from the outer perimeter, and a small spotter plane (Bird Dog) flown by Lt. Col. Bo Harrison circled at 200 feet dropping hand grenades out the planes window into the fire storm below. In the middle of all this, by the Grace of God, the hot 105 shell finally cooled off, didn't explode, but kept us praying because it kept smoking until the sun finally came up. One F-100 was making strafing runs at what appeared to the tree top level. This particular F-100, flown by Capt. Arthur Chase, would come in repeatedly with green tracers streaking up to meet him on each run. There was a tremendous explosion during one of these runs (from a bomb or the ammo dump) and I didn't even have time to duck down before a piece of shrapnel the size of my hand came buzzing through the air and impacted into the sand bag that was 6 inches above my head; it then melted a large hole in the green poncho that I had draped over the sand bags for some camouflage. The F-100 pilot was the bravest pilot I saw during my tour in Viet Nam. He came in low, at night, and his jet was outlined in the sky by the blazing ammo dump making him an exposed target for the NVA. Yet again and again he would come in, strafe, and roll over and come around again and again. I am certain Capt. Chase's strafing helped keep the NVA at bay outside the perimeter and prevented them from reinforcing the NVA that had already made it inside Bo Tuc. His courage and low passes helped us hold out until daylight. (See citation below)
The next morning there were between 30 to 50 NVA dead inside Bo Tuc and there were dead NVA outside the perimeter also but I don't remember that count; there would be 4 dead in front of one position, 8 dead scattered in another area and so on. We did a sweep outside the perimeter and saw blood trails too numerous to count going off in all directions. This had to be a Regiment size NVA outfit and we apparently had inflicted heavy losses on them. Our losses were 10 killed, 35 wounded. This appeared to be a top notch NVA unit that had no fear of going up against us hard head on.
It was a well planned attack; they breached the perimeter and got to the artillery which had to start firing "bee hive" rounds to defend themselves. The fact that Charlie Company had set up around the artillery seemed to blunt the attack because the NVA thought once they were inside the perimeter, they would be able to outflank all of our positions. But as luck would have it, they made a big mistake going straight for the artillery and ran head on into a second line of bunkers inside the perimeter with Charlie Company dug in around the 105 gun positions. This is were the attack was finally stopped. After the Battle of Bo Tuc, the Manchus were sent to Suoi Cut to relieve the 2/22 Infantry that had been chewed up badly in an early January 1, 1968 attack on their base. We did not know it at the time but the Manchus were one of the first American combat units to be engaged in what would be known in a few weeks as the infamous 1968 TET OFFENSIVE. A mere 4 days after arriving at Suoi Cut, the Manchus would again be locked into combat with the NVA at a place called THE HOURGLASS.
Bill Fitch, Alpha Company, 1967-1968