VFW Magazine — June/July 2016
Change Language:
Ambushed At Srok Dong
Richard Fournier

For two units of the 1st Infantry Division, combat spread over three days in mid-1966, proved to be a trial by fire. One they survived only with the aid of vital air power.

The overall mission was to secure the “Big Red One’s” (1st Infantry Division) forward base at Quan Loi and the Hon Quan airfield. It was part of an operation dubbed El Paso II.

More specifically, it was to carry out a reconnaissance-in-force along portions of National Highway 13 north of the bridge at Cam Le, above An Loc. Because the bridge was largely destroyed, it was necessary to escort engineers to make repairs to the structure. But to the men on the ground, they were being used as bait to lure the enemy into a fight.

B Troop of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry—nicknamed the “Quarter– horse”—was assigned escort duty on June 30, 1966. Attached was the 1st Platoon of C Company. Ultimately, the troopers would be supported by three full companies (A, B and C) of the 2nd Bn., 18th Inf., known as the “Spartans.”

The terrain along Highway 13 was a mix of dense jungle, tree lines, chesthigh grass and rice paddies. Near the hamlet of Srok Dong, due north of An Loc, the Viet Cong (VC) had constructed a bulwark of piled logs. It was close to the intersection of Highway 13 and Route 17, an ideal location for an L-shaped ambush. Indeed, the VC had been ordered to “lay a mobile ambush” of convoys passing by there.

That task was taken up by the 271st VC (Main Force) Regiment of the 9th VC Division. Before the three days of sporadic fighting were over, it would be joined by elements of the 273rd VC Regiment.

AMBUSH IS SPRUNG

At 9:40 a.m. on June 30, B Troop—led by 1st Lt. James P. Flores—was hit by recoilless- rifle and machine-gun fire while crossing a rice paddy. Within the first 30 minutes, all of its four M-48 Patton tanks were disabled. Accompanying armored personnel carriers (APCs) responded with .50-caliber fire.

APCs of C Troop carrying infantrymen atop them arrived quickly, only to be greeted by a rain of mortar shells. Its 1st Platoon countered with a mechanical flamethrower. Not to be deterred, the armored cavalrymen put up a protective shield around B Troop.

Heavy fire support was quick on the scene. B and D batteries of the 8th Bn., 6th Arty, based at Hon Quan, fired 825 rounds over the course of combat. Airplanes, UH-1B Huey helicopters and CH-47 Chinooks (“Guns-A-Go-Go”) from the 11th Aviation Battalion provided an aerial arsenal. All told, the aircraft launched 88 close tactical air strikes.

By noon, the remainder of A Company was flown in by helicopter. In hot pursuit of fleeing VC, it was hit. C Company joined the fray. B Company arrived about the time the VC were leaving the battlefield. By 3:30 p.m., the VC had mostly broken off contact. C Troop moved to Checkpoint One and assisted B Troop in evacuating the wounded and suppressing enemy fire.

Pfc. Charles F. Anderson was the only medic available for more than two hours and supervised the evacuation. Under heavy fire, he kept it going until the last wounded man was evacuated. Anderson was later awarded the Silver Star.

One armor recon soldier of C Troop, Sgt. Donald R. Long, especially stood out that day. He carried wounded to the helicopters and provided much-needed supplies under intense fire. Repelling the VC as they attempted to mount his APC, Long helped a severely wounded crew member to safety. When a grenade landed on the carrier deck, “he threw himself over the grenade to absorb the blast and thereby saved the lives of eight of his comrades at the expense of his own life,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.

But eight other C troopers were KIA along with three from B Troop. C Company lost five men killed and Headquarters Company counted one dead (a cook). The total tally for June 30 was 17 Gis KIA and 66 WIA.

PURSUIT TO THE CAMBODIAN BORDER

Pursuit of the VC continued into July 1. At sunset, units of the 273rd VC Regiment attacked a reinforced platoon of A Company in its night defensive positon near the hamlet of Ta Thiet close to the Cambodian border. C Company and the Recon Platoon, led by 1st Lt. James Magner, came to its relief. Before the VC broke off contact at 2 a.m. on July 2, two A Company infantrymen were KIA as well as one trooper from C Troop.

The lull in fighting was short-lived. Less than four hours later at 5:45 a.m., the 273rd struck again, hitting the 250 men of A and C companies. Fortunately, they were dug-in in a clearing within a thorny scrub forest 2½ miles from the Cambodian border. And the men were fully alert.

“Listen, in my book, this is the only way to play it,” Capt. Theodore Fichtl, CO of C Company, told a reporter. “One hundred percent alert the first two hours of darkness and from 4 a.m. to dawn.”

AVC prematurely fired a machine gun burst, putting the Gis on notice. “That’s when Victor Charlie made his first mistake,” said company 1st Sgt. Wiley Tucker. “That machine gun let us know what was coming.”

Mortars followed first. As one Korean War vet described the situation, “it hailed mortar shells” for two to three minutes.

Then head-on VC ground assaults attempted to breach the perimeter. In their sector, Recon Platoon members drove them back with tear gas with winds cooperating. But one entire infantry squad found their M-16s jammed by sand; ammo and grenades exhausted. Fellow Gis bravely carried ammunition forward to them, some paying with their lives.

The entire action lasted around three hours, claiming the lives of 16 men—nine from A Company, six from C Company and one from the Recon Platoon. But the 273rd retreated, reportedly leaving 78 dead behind. Air power had saved the day. F-100s “laid down so much molten steel that the Viet Cong withdrew shortly after 9 a.m.,” according to one account.

‘VALIANT WARRIORS’

The 1st Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. William E. Dupuy, later concluded: “U.S. forces nearly lost this battle. Air superiority proved to be the deciding factor, inflicting severe losses on the enemy.”

Still, Gis paid a dear price in the fighting at and immediately after Srok Dong. The combined nine hours of combat on June 30 and July 2, claimed 92% of American casualties.

Some 36 men were KIA and at least 94 WIA. The 18th Infantry counted 24 dead, or 66% of the total. A and C companies were hit equally hard. The 4th Cav fatal tally was 12 (most from C Troop), accounting for the remaining 33%. Volunteers (21) constituted 58% of the deaths; draftees (15) 42%.

Most deaths were caused by multiple fragmentation wounds inflicted by grenades and mortar rounds. Gunfire killed one-third of the men. “Friendly fire” was responsible for two of the fatalities.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer wrote of the men of the 18th Infantry (and equally applicable to all units and time periods): “The important thing is that these valiant warriors performed with dignity and honor. We owe them our respect for their selfless service to the nation. We should honor them for duty faithfully performed.”

E-MAIL rkolb@vfw.org
VIEW ALL ARTICLES
Message
SEND