By: Colonel (Retired) John M. Henchman
4th Battalion CO
Oct. 1, 1967 -March 3, 1968
The Third Brigade's main base was Dau Tieng. Like our Brigade, they had a forward base at Soui Cut. FSB Burt, They had occupied this position for just a few days. Like us, they were astride a major road and trail network leading to Saigon- On the night of January 1, a reinforced regiment of NVA attacked and did severe damage to the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry.
The MANCHUs were ordered to immediately leave Katum,go OPCON to the Third Brigade, and relieve the 2/22 Infantry. I flew down there at once to meet with the Brigade CO, Colonel Daemes. The position occupied by the 2/22 Wantry, and other areas, were just a mess. Our battalion did better than that in a couple of hours each day.
As the lead elements of the MANCHUs got there, we began to get things organized. By late evening, we were all in, and as Bill and I walked around, we could see immediately that our guys were a whole hell of a lot better soldiers than those that had been there before.
Operations: January 3-4:
Usual stuff. Short sweeps into the immediate area. Some contact. Colonel Daemes wanted us to S&D out farther. He assigned an area for January 5 that was just 1 KM from the Cambodian Border. Because of its hour-glass shape, that is what we came to call it.
The "Hour Glass" Landing Zone - January 5:
It must be said that this was the most difficult and frustrating day I spent in Vietnam in terms of commanding an "operation". It was a deadly day for many-way too many. It is so firmly planted in my memory, I can visualize almost every detail and recall vividly some, of the words spoken.
Company A and D were sent off into another AO to do a sweep, and to be extracted in the late afternoon. It was Company C's turn to remain in position in FSB BURT. Company B was to go into the Hour-Glass using the lift ships initially used by Company A.
Bill and I had made the decision not to put preparation fires around an LZ - because it invariable brought "Charlie". The defensive fires were, however, meticulously planned, and available "on call". I did order SMOKEY in on the east, north, and west sides of this LZ because it could be seen from higher ground in Cambodia, and I knew there were base camps close by. [Hell, you could see the tin covered roofs.]
The PZ was BURT. I was overhead in the C&C. Bill was with the first lift. The first lift into the LZ landed "cold". That platoon headed off the LZ into the southern wood line per plan. The second lift was just hovering for drop off when several .51 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns swept the flight. The troops were caught in the open. One chopper crashed and burned, killing the pilot and one door gunner. The other crew members lay near the crash badly injured.
As I looked down on that horrific sight, I saw Bill STAND UP firing his carbine at those gun emplacements, and then guiding one or two members of the platoon at a time into defiaded positions on the edge of the woods. He did this ten or twelve times until all the platoon was off the LZ. [I later put him in for his first DSC for this heroism above and beyond the call]
What saved that platoon from complete annihilation was that the NVA gunners had AA parapets and could not depress their muzzles much below three feet from the ground giving an infantryman a chance to crawl under it.
As soon as the two platoons were in, I had to decide: what next. The two platoons were taking heavy mortar and small arms fire from across the LZ to the north. By now, of course, I was firing evenjthing available around those platoons. I had ISSUE 11 get air in-bound; I had SMOKY continue to make passes until he was too full of holes to continue; I requested and got gun ships two at first, then more.
By now it was midmorning. I needed to reinforce the two platoons on the ground because they did not have enough combat power to make it alone. I ordered the next platoon in, but the lift was hit hard by small arms fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire. The lift commander chose to abort.
Now, my choices were limited. It was obvious that we had landed in the middle of a very sophisticated headquarters, well-defended. I had to reinforce in real strength, or get those two platoons out of there. I asked Colonel Daemes to get Company A and D saddled up wherever they were and get then ready to reinforce.
His response: "Let's wait a bit, Henchman, and see what happens here. Maybe we can handle this with what you have here." I waited, and time was not in our favor.
An hour went by-it is almost noon now. Some of B Company's guys had rescued and secured the rest of the, shot-down crew. The troops in the wood line had dug in, Bill and I were in constant contact. Their situation was precarious. But I needed more people on the ground, or needed to get those two platoons OUT!
Meantime, I had more and more firepower allocated. At about 1300, I had one SMOKY; three Cav LOH doing recon; TWELVE gunships sort of going in a big circle delivering ordnance, jets were making continuous bombing runs with GPs, 20mm, and clusters; and I had priority of Division fires that could reach this area-which was basically Daemes DS Arty battalion at BURT.
Again, I told him we should reinforce with the whole battalion. something very big - a division headquarters? COSVN?
His response: "I can't do that. We can't afford to let BURT be that undefended." I was furious. If I could have gotten TROPIC 6 on the line, I would have. He was not available to me on the net I had in the chopper.
About 1330 - 1400, one of the Cav LOH saw a bunch of weapons near positions that looked abandoned on the ground in the woods just west of the LZ. Daemes ordered me to put one platoon of Company A in there to get them. I set that up very reluctantly.
While this activity was going on, the battalion net was flooded with some Phoney Australian claiming to be operating in our AO, and all this fire was dangerous to his operation. I needed to stop it. No way! We did some triangularization on him with the choppers, and bombed him harder because he was transmitting from Cambodia. Later, I was chastised about responding on the battalion "Push" by Communication Security guys, but as I explained, they knew all our frequencies and, besides,, I was in full control on my alternate frequency.
When the A company platoon got on the ground west of the LZ, "hot" of course, it turned out that this was just a trap. I spent the next two hours, and lost a couple more choppers getting them out in one piece with only a couple WIA's.
It was about this time that the C&C was hit by a lot of ground fire, the pilot [the BLACKHAWKS C.0.] told me we were "going down". My RTO said the engine was on fire. We crash landed into an open field about 2 KM from the Hour Glass, and all of us were picked up almost immediately by Colonel Daemes in his C&C. Only now his C&C was so overloaded that we had to go back to BURT to unload. Soon as I got to BURT, I got into a slick--only thing available-and was back in about 30 minutes. Only, I did not have the good communications afforded by the C&C.
It was getting along toward 1600. Two platoons of Company B were still in the tree line, getting hit with all sorts of fire. Since it was obvious I could not reinforce, I concentrated on getting these guys out.
The first lift of slicks came in about 1630, took lots of fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire, but they made it out-just barely.
That left Hector Colon's platoon in the tree line, some dead, some wounded. All critically low on ammunition, and darkness only a little way off. If they could not be out before dark, that platoon would have been lost in the night. They did not have the combat power to survive.
BLACKHAWK 6 and ships from the 187 Assault Helicopter Company rallied to the cause, got a few birds without holes together.
I had made a very low level pass with the slick I was in and pushed out several cases of ammunition to Hector. It wasn't much, but it was all I had.
I recall giving what encouragement I could, ending with: "God bless you, Hector, and KEEP UP THE FIRE. We will move heaven and earth to get you out of this."
First try was no good. Flight aborted. Too much fire. Second try, Hector had his guys ready, carrying their dead and wounded, and got them on the choppers which took off immediately as loaded. Only problem was, two took off without a full load, leaving the last slick with a crew of 4, seven dead and four wounded, a total of 15 for a slick designed to pull out with a maximum load of 11. I literally willed that slick to fly. It barely made it over the tree line, and barely made it to BURT.
What Hector's guys did-individuany and cohectively-was gallantry in action. NO soldiers ever did better for each other. I put the entire platoon in for decorations for heroism. Some, sad to say, were posthumous. From that day to this, my respect for those MANCHUs is immense.
But the effects of that day were, not over:
The support helicopter companies were severely damaged. Three had been shot down' and burned somewhere, including the C&C I had been riding. They had quite a few WlA's among their crews, and most of the slicks needed lots of holes patched.
I was visited by the Communications Security guys from MACV who chewed my ass for communicating with the enemy on my net!
The rest of the time at FSB BURT-January 6 to January 18:
I sent Company B back to Tay Ninh. They were very much in need of a stand-down. On January 17, there was a memorial ceremony for those who had been killed in the Hour Glass and in other fights in the area, and then in the afternoon, an awards ceremony. An extract from Dexter's diary tells the story: