DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
The threat to Kontum province having subsided, General Peers on 1 July sent a battalion (Colonel Gannon's 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry) of his 1st Brigade to operate east of Pleiku city in conjunction with the division's tank battalion, (1st Battalion, 69th Armor) which was charged with securing Highway 19E, the main supply route into the western highlands. In that general area, the enemy was known to have the 95B North Vietnamese Regiment and two Viet Cong local force battalions, which posed an obvious threat to the highway. Yet the main threat to Pleiku province remained in the western reaches close to the Cambodian border. While activity by the 1st North Vietnamese Division along the border had dropped sharply during June, intelligence had detected a marked increase early in July, particularly between Duc Co and the Ia Drang valley, the sector of the 4th Division's 2d Brigade. In response, the 4th Division arranged for two B-52 strikes in the region on 10 July; the commander of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, Lt Col C. J. Wright, drew the assignment of determining the results of one of those missions.*
THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY AND THE CENTER OF MILITARY HISTORY
WASHINGTON, DC 20374-5088
George L. MacGarrigle
BORDER PROBES IN PLEIKU
Realizing that a favorite enemy tactic after a B-52 strikes was to send forces to the vicinity to ambush American units out to assess the damage, Colonel Wright approached his task with caution. There were additional reasons for prudence: the field strength of his companies had shrunk well below a hundred men because of many of his troops were rotating back to the United States after completing their one-year tours, and the rotation policy had brought in a large number of non-commissioned and company-grade officers inexperienced in combat.
While one company took up a position on the fringe of the B-52 strikes, another entered the target area, finding little but bomb-craters. Both companies then moved east to established separate perimeters a kilometer apart amid wooded, rocky hills within five kilometers of the Cambodian border. In keeping with brigade policy, work began on the perimeters in mid-afternoon so that by dark a landing site could be carved out of the trees and deep, covered bunkers constructed. Although the night passed without incident, both companies received warning that an enemy force of undetermined strength was thought to be in the area.
Although Colonel Wright intended that at first light the next day the troops were to move away from the border area, such a dense fog engulfed the company perimeters that Wright ordered a delay. While waiting for the fog to lift, he instructed both companies to conduct close-in patrols.
Consisting of a platoon of Company C, one patrol became disoriented in the fog and strayed about seven hundred meters from the perimeter. Encountering a squad of North Vietnamese troops, the men opened fire, killing three and sending the rest fleeing south in the direction of Company B's position.
About half an hour later, men of the main body of Company C spotted thirty North Vietnamese northeast of their perimeter. As the company braced for an attack, a forward observer called in artillery and mortar fire on the enemy force.
Concerned lest Company C's patrolling platoon get involved with the enemy while returning to the company's perimeter, Colonel Wright directed Company B to establish radio contact and call the platoon into the Company B's perimeter. When the enemy attack against Company C failed to develop and the fog began to lift, Company B's commander instead sent one of his platoons to find Company C's men and escort them back to Company B's position; but before link-up could take place, an enemy force took Company C's platoon under fire. By mid-morning, the platoon was virtually surrounded.
As well as Colonel Wright could determine, the platoon of Company B was three hundred meters west of the platoon of Company C with an enemy force of unknown size between the two. Although weathered in at his fire base, Wright knew the position of his two companies and that they and the two isolated platoons were within a wooded area about the size of a square kilometer, but he knew only the approximate locations of the two isolated platoons. Despite the apparent closeness of the two, Wright took the risk of placing artillery and mortar fire around Company C's embattled platoon. He also requested helicopters to lift his Company A from security duty at the fire base into the battle area. As flying conditions improved, Wright himself got a helicopter shortly before 1100 and went aboard to direct the action from the air.
Discovering that the platoon of Company B, like that of Company C, was alone, the enemy attacked that platoon as well. Although the men repulsed the assault, enemy small arms and mortar fire continued. The platoon of Company C also held its position but was by that time completely surrounded.
From the command helicopter, Colonel Wright ordered both companies to move to the support of their isolated platoons; he himself would try to guide them from his helicopter by means of smoke grenades set off by the companies as they advanced. Wright also intended to coordinate the artillery and mortar support.
Yet hardly had Company B set out when enemy mortar fire struck the command group, mortally wounding the company commander. An attempt to insert a new commander by helicopter failed when enemy fire wounded the pilot and the mission was aborted.
Aware that Company B's platoon leaders were all inexperienced, Wright radioed the company's forward artillery observer, 1st Lt Fred G. Bragg, Jr., who had several months of combat experience with the company, to take command. Company B, Lieutenant Bragg told Wright, was pinned down by enemy fire and had lost contact with its isolated platoon; but before Colonel Wright could do anything to help, his helicopter had to return to Duc Co, fourteen kilometers away to refuel.
Meanwhile, fighter-bombers had arrived and were orbiting overhead, awaiting an opportunity to strike. Rather than abort the mission, the forward air controller requested that the artillery supporting Company B be shifted so that the planes could come in. Despite objection from Bragg, the headquarters controlling Wright's battalion, the 2d Brigade, ordered a check fire on the artillery. As the planes attacked with no discernible effect on the situation, Company B was without artillery support for half an hour until Colonel Wright upon his return countermanded the check fire order.
Company C in the meantime broke through to its platoon and then withdrew under enemy pressure to the original company position, but Wright told the company commander to move at once to reinforce Company B. As Company C set out under enemy fire, helicopters arrived at the battalion fire base, picked up the men of Company A, and inserted them into a large clearing a few kilometers south of Company B's original position. Possibly because of that reinforcement, the enemy broke off the fight and pulled back across the frontier into Cambodia.
When convinced that the enemy had left, Lieutenant Bragg and his men pulled back to their original perimeter to obtain resupply and evacuate casualties having by then lost radio contact with Colonel Wright. When Wright discovered Bragg and his men at that location he guided his other companies to the same position, then landed to join them (* NOTE: this is clearly an error in Wright's recollection of events because LT Bragg was dead at this point in the battle, killed with the rest of the Company B Command Group. Wright must be confusing LT Bragg with LT Rasser
at this point). Pilots of gunships having spotted American dead at the last known location of Company B's isolated platoon, Wright sent Company C to recover the bodies.
Throughout the night artillery and air strikes struck probable enemy routes of withdrawal and sealed off the battalion's perimeter. A muster the next morning revealed that the battalion had lost thirty-four wounded, thirty-one dead, and seven missing, with most of the dead and all of the missing from Company B's ill-fated platoon. Searches conducted over the next two days failed to located the missing; although one man would never be found, six would be repatriated when the war ended.
The battalion reported 152 enemy dead, a large number of them in mass graves. Although quantities of enemy ammunition and equipment littered the battle area, there was but one enemy weapon. The 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, had engaged at least a battalion of the 66th North Vietnamese Regiment.
* This account is based on COAAR, 1st Bn, 12th Inf, 4th Div, Opns of 12 Jul 67 (Tab G to COAAR, 4th Div, Opn FRANCIS MARION); COAAR, 4th Div, Opn FRANCIS MARION, pp. 3, 16, &: Incls 6 &: 7; Doc., undtd, Sub: 4th Division Presentation, pp. 44-45 (CMH Files): ORLL, 4th Div, Period Ending 31 Jul 67, pp. 44-45; Interview w/BG Corley J. Wright, former Cmdr, 1st Bn, 12th Inf, 26 Feb 79 (CMH Files); Interview w/LTG (Ret) Glenn D. Walker, former ADC 4th Div, 3Apr 79 (CMH Files); Interview w/MG (Ret) Adamson, 4 Apr 79. (CMH Files).
Footnotes from The Virtual Wall:
1 Colonel Wright directed the 4.2 Mortar Platoon leader, 1st Lt David Jennings, to replace the B Company commander, Captain Bryan W. Rushton. Jennings attempted to do so via a OH-23G observation helicopter (tail number 64-15119), but the OH-23 was heavily hit and the pilot seriously wounded - whereupon Jennings managed to fly the damaged helicopter to and somehow land at the nearby Duc Co Special Forces camp. The helicopter incident report states that the OH-23
"took 15 hits from small arms/automatic weapons ... in the fuselage. The helicopter made a forced landing. Additional damage upon landing. Aircraft destroyed."
The pilot (name unknown) and Jennings both survived.
2 After 1st Lt Bragg's death, 2nd Lt Gary Rasser, the sole surviving officer in B Company, organized and led about 25 men out of the killing zone. 1st Lt Bragg and 2nd Lt Rasser both were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
3 Mr. MacGarrigle's numbers are misleading. Thirty-two men died that day: 29 from 1/12 and the three-man artillery Forward Observer team from B/4/42nd Artillery. Seven men were Missing in Action; of those, five returned on 05 March 1973 after almost six years as prisoners of war:
Two others did not:
- Sgt Cordine McMurray; retired as Sergeant Major, US Army.
- SP4 Martin S. Frank; returned to active duty.
- PFC Nathan B. Henry; medical retirement.
- PFC Stanley A. Newell; retired as Major, US Army.
- PFC Richard R. Perricone; returned to civilian life.
- SP4 James F. Schiele - missing, believed to have died in captivity, body not recovered
- PFC James L. Van Bendegom - died in captivity, body not recovered