VFW Magazine — May 2010
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National Guard’s Deadliest Days In Vietnam
The Editors

The two National Guard artillery battalions that served in Vietnam in 1969 experienced the deadliest single-action losses of the war for citizen-soldier units. The homecoming for these casualties caused an outpouring of public emotion in Bardstown, Ky., and Manchester, N.H.

INfusion was the byword when it came to the National Guard during the Vietnam War. It was a policy designed to prevent too many men from the same hometown from dying in a single action from the same unit. However, in two instances, it was unable to avert fate.

The Army National Guard’s single deadliest actions of the Vietnam War came in the summer of 1969. On June 19, C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery (Kentucky National Guard), was stationed at Firebase Tomahawk.

Perched atop a saddle-shaped hill astride Highway 1, 19 miles southeast of Hue, it was a prime enemy target.“This is a terrible place to be,” recalled one officer when he first saw it. Besides the 70-man artillery battery—90% of whom originally hailed from the Bardstown area of Kentucky—the firebase was manned by an 18-man platoon from C Co., 2nd Bn., 501st Inf., 101st Abn.Div. At 1:30 a.m., the 72nd Sapper Company of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) 4th Regiment attacked, quickly breaching the perimeter. “During the first 15 or 20 minutes, I didn’t think we were gonna make it,” Ronnie Hibbs remembered. It would be a tough night indeed for the citizen-soldiers.

“Seems like we fought for hours and hours,”Reuben Simpson said,“but it really wasn’t that long. When I went out at first light, I was amazed at what little was left.The whole hill was just about gone.” An estimated 150 enemy rocket-propelled grenades and satchel charges had destroyed three howitzers (and disabled one), an ammo storage area, nine bunkers, the mess hall, the dining tent, a maintenance area, four ammo carriers and three jeeps.

Of the nine artillerymen killed, four were actually active-duty soldiers infused into the Kentucky battery. One of the five Kentuckians was killed by “friendly fire.” Another, Sgt. James Moore, died of painful burns five days later on June 24 aboard a hospital ship. Four of the Guardsmen called Bardstown home; the other was from Carrollton. A total of 37 Guardsmen were wounded. The 101st platoon lost four KIA and 13 WIA. Some 18 NVA sapper bodies were counted.

Though Bardstown, population 5,000, is sometimes referred to as suffering the highest per capita loss of the war (its surrounding area sustained 17 killed), that dubious distinction actually belongs to Beallsville, Ohio.With only 475 residents, it sacrificed six of its sons.

Of Battery C’s original 117 members, 85 were married. It enlisted seven sets of brothers, plus many cousins. Their fallen Comrades, as well as other area residents killed, are honored by two monuments on the town’s Courthouse Square.

“Bardstown would become a symbol of how deep into America the war had reached, and few, if any, communities in this land felt the impact of the war as did the people here,” wrote Jim Wilson, author of The Sons of Bardstown: 25 Years of Vietnam in an American Town.

Manchester Mourns Far to the northeast in New Hampshire, the 94,000 people of this mid-sized city may have taken exception to that statement.

Manchester was home base to the 3rd Bn., 197th Artillery (New Hampshire National Guard).

The battalion sent 506 soldiers to Vietnam, 80% of whom were married.

Many of the men were of French- Canadian descent who attended the same schools and churches. Some lived on the same streets in the same West Side neighborhood. Some were not even U.S. citizens.

Once in Vietnam, 70% were “infused,” or dispersed to regular Army units. No matter where they were stationed, actions on the homefront were felt keenly. CWO Albert Lahaie of Service Battery wrote in a letter published in the Manchester Union Leader: “We feel that the publicity at home has been focused so intensely on those who have not accepted their duty that by accepting ours,we have been forgotten.” On Aug. 26, five men of A Battery were on their way to regroup in Long Binh before heading home. About 32 miles from Saigon, their vehicle hit a 40- pound land mine on Highway 13, known as “Thunder Road.” “They were within sight of Lai Khe Base Camp,” said Joe Comroe.

“I was there, and witnessed the explosion, which blew the 5-ton truck they were riding in nearly 100 feet in the air.” When the men’s bodies were returned home, 2,000 mourners turned out. The five flag-draped coffins were too much for family members to bear.

(Four of the five were married.) “The moans and sobs of relatives were heard above the silence,” according to the New Hampshire Sunday News. City officials called it the “saddest place, the saddest day in the city’s history.” Veterans of the 197th held a 40th anniversary reunion last year, as they had done earlier. The deaths of those fellow unit members are never far from their thoughts. As Roy Hughes said, “Part of all of us is in those cemeteries in Manchester—and always will be.”