DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
Headquarters I Field Force Vietnam
APO San Francisco 96350 19 November 1969
1. REFERENCE: Regulation 870-3, HQ USARV, Combat After Action Interviews, dated 7 March 1968.
2. NAME AND TYPE OF OPERATION: Unnamed ambush patrol on Route 19, RVN.
3. DATE OF OPERATION: 21-22 January 1969
4. LOCATION: Binh Dinh Province, RVN, grid coordinates BR 337461.
5. COMMAND AND CONTROL HEADQUARTERS: Company A, 1st Battalion (Mech), 50th Infantry, 173d Airborne Brigade.
6. PERSONS INTERVIEWED:
7. INTERVIEWING OFFICER: Major Alexander S. Cochran, Commanding Officer, 13th Military History Detachment, Headquarters, I Field Force Vietnam.
8. BACKGROUND INFORMATION:
a. Route 19, which runs from Pleiku City in the Central Highlands to Qui Nhon on the South China Sea, is one of the most important supply
routes in II Corps Tactical Zone. Its location has seen the defeats of the French Mobile Group 100 in 1954 and the successes of the 1st Cavalry Division in 1965-66. Today the vast majority of the military supplies required to support military and pacification operations in the Central Highlands travel this road every day. A pipeline parallels the road and carrion fuel needed to power the equipment.
b. The NVA and VC forces in the area, realizing the importance of the road and the pipeline, have repeatedly attempted to mire the road and blow the pipeline; however, because of allied successes in the areas these attempts have been reduced to sporadic and harassing incidents.
c. The 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mech), 173d Airborne Brigade has the mission of keeping open and securing the section of Route 19 from An Khe Pass to the 4th Infantry Division's area of operations. In order to successfully accomplish this mission, the battalion normally employs one company in a static defense role on strong points along the road while the other two companies conduct mounted and dismounted operations to the north and south of the road. At night, the company in the static defense role normally employs several platoon and squad-sized ambush patrols along key sections of the road.
d. About 10 kilometers west of An Khe is a north-south stream called the Dak Po. As it crosses Route 19, it creates a type of saddle with a ridgeline on both flanks. The width of the Dak Po at this point is approximately 500 meters from ridge to ridge. When standing in the Dak Po, it is impossible to see over either ridge. It is also impossible to see into the Dak Po until one gets to the ridges, Because of this terrain feature, the Dak Po has long been a favorite NVA north-south infiltration route.
a. In January 1969, the NVA forces along Route 19 increased their local mining attacks and began automatic attempts to destroy the pipeline by firing several rounds of small arms ammunition into each section of pipeline for several miles each night, thereby temporarily disrupting the flow of fuel.
b. In early January, the NVA placed a large amount of explosives in the culvert and at the bypass where the Dak Po cuts through Route 19, attempting to cut the road, but their attempt was unsuccessful because of improper placement. On 15 January, the NVA again placed some explosives in the same location. This time they were successful in cutting the bypass and damaging three APC's and one M48 tank from A Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mech).
c. There were indications that the NVA were using the Dak Po as a main infiltration route from north to south and would probably attempt to cut the road again based on their recent success,
10. CONCEPT AND EXECUTION OF THE OPERATION:
a. Based on current intelligence, the decision was made by the Commanding Officer, A Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mech) to place an ambush in the Dak Po on the night of 21 January 1969, The 2d Platoon was given this mission, and a 14-man patrol was selected from the unit. The patrol carried four M60 machine guns, two M79 grenade launchers, nine M16A1 rifles, two starlight scopes and 14 Claymore mines. Each patrol member carried a minimum of 10 magazines of M16 ammunition, 300 rounds of M60 ammunition and two fragmentation grenades. The patrol leader took two AN/PRC-25 radios, one with which to communicate with the company and the other to communicate with the artillery battery at LZ Schueller, four kilometers to the east of the proposed ambush site.
b. The general plan was to organize the ambush site into five three-man teams. Four of these teams were to be oriented on the road while the other team was to be located about 50 meters to the rear (south) for security. Each team was to have three Claymore mines. The left and right flank teams were to aim two of their three Claymores to the flanks while the other teams were to aim their Claymores into the kill zone on the road. Each team was to have a machine gun except for the platoon leader's team, which was located in the middle. The two flank teams were given the M79 grenade launchers, and the two starlight scopes were to be employed by the right and rear flank teams. Prior to departure, the patrol leader requested four artillery concentrations along the Dak Po, two 200 meters north of the road and two 200 meters south of the road. These concentrations were not fired because the patrol leader felt that this would compromise his mission and position.
c. At 1845 hours 21 January, the patrol departed LZ Schueller mounted on APC's which were going to Pump Station 7 to retrieve a disabled APC. As the APC's moved through the Dak Po, they slowed down to five MPH, and the patrol members jumped off. The ambush site was set up with the four teams located in the high grass about 15 meters south of and parallel to Route 19 These positions were about ten meters apart. By 2000 hours, the organization of the site was complete.
d. At approximately 2015 hours, SKS firing was heard from the left (west) flank consisting mostly of single shots with an occasional short burst. At 2020 hours, two NVA soldiers came over the hill. They were laughing and talking, as one ambush member later remarked "just like a bunch of GI's going downtown". Approximately 20 meters behind this point element, the main body came in a staggered file. They were firing one round into each section of the pipeline and were also talking in loud voices. The ambush patrol let the point element pass through the kill zone.
e. The patrol leader looked out of the grass to see how many NVA soldiers there were. Because of his location in the saddle, he was unable to see beyond the top of the hill. Based on this and the possibility that the NVA force was larger than the patrol could handle, the patrol leader made the decision to ambush the front of the column. He also felt that if he waited and ambushed the middle of the enemy force, he might have a sizeable enemy force on both flanks.
f. The patrol leader waited until the front element of the main body was on the right edge of the killing zone and then he detonated his two Claymores, the signal to trigger the ambush. Immediately the other ambush members detonated their Claymores and threw fragmentation grenades.
g. The patrol leader fired two hand-held flares, and his RTO called back to LZ Schueller requesting artillery illumination. Because of required clearance procedures, the illumination was not fired for approximately 30 minutes. The ambush site was out of firing range of the company's 81mm mortars. The mortar crews located at LZ Schueller attempted to provide illumination by depressing their gun tubes as low as possible without hitting the gun tracks and by adding extra charges to the rounds. This attempt was marginally successful.
h. Available illumination revealed one dead NVA soldier in the road, To the north of the road in the grass, NVA soldiers were moaning and crying "Chieu Hoi". The fragments from the Claymore mines and grenades had punctured holes in the pipeline, and fuel was spraying all over the road and surrounding area, creating a tremendous fire hazard. The right flank position killed one more NVA, probably one of the point men trying to return. Two more NVA soldiers were killed by the patrol leader and another patrol member as they stepped out on the road. Enemy fire started from the hill north of the kill zone. M60 fire was placed on the hill, and several ambush members moved on the road to the top of the hill where they found a roadblock consisting of several pipe sections and boxes. After it was determined that the roadblock was not booby trapped, they started to check north of the road where moaning and cries of "Chieu Hoi" could still be heard. Because of fire hazard created by the fuel and the possibility of an NVA counterattack, the patrol leader decided not to check any further.
i. The patrol then placed the bodies in the middle of the road and moved the ambush site 300 meters to the east where they could observe the bodies. Because of the shortage of ammunition (only two magazines of M16 ammunition per weapon, a total of 160 rounds of M60 ammunition for four guns, three fragmentation grenades and two Claymore mines), the patrol was ordered not to ambush and deployed in a perimeter defense. The platoon leader, still concerned about an enemy counterattack, had artillery concentrations fired and marked around his new position and in the Dak Po.
Organization and consolidation of the new position was completed by 2300 hours and adjustment of the artillery was completed by 2400 hours. There was no more contact that night,
j. The next morning, Company B, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mech) accompanied by a Tracker Team, swept the contact area. Because of the large amount of fuel in the area, the Tracker Team was unable to pick up a scent. In the afternoon, Company B captured a wounded NVA soldier with an AK47 rifle about 2000 meters to the north of the ambush site who was identified as a member of 3d Squad, 4th Platoon, 4th Company, 407th Sapper Battalion. Under questioning, he stated that the mission of his company that night had been to establish an ambush at the Dak Po similar to the successful ambush of 15 January. He further stated that he saw eight wounded NVA soldiers being dragged away from the ambush site and that one of the KIA was the company X0. The prisoner died during the interrogation.
Enemy: 6 KIA (BC)
12. LESSONS LEARNED:
a. Sweep of the Kill Zone. Every effort should be exerted to conduct an immediate sweep of the kill zone of an ambush before the enemy has a chance to retrieve his casualties and equipment. In this particular case, shortage of ammunition, fire hazard and lack of timely illumination precluded the sweep, and the final sweep was not conducted until 10 hours after the initial contact was made. A prisoner confirmed that at least eight WIA's had been evacuated during this period.
b. Responsiveness of Artillery Fire. Because of the nature of the Vietnamese war and the large number of civilians living within areas where enemy contacts are initiated, there are certain mandatory clearances and checks that artillery units must obtain prior to a fire mission. In this particular case, the Daily Journal showed that the request for fire reached the artillery liaison officer's desk at the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Tactical Operation Center at 2040 hours. Clearance for a "trash grid" (the zone where the canister from an illumination round will impact) was obtained at 2051 hours. No record was available as to when the first round was fired. Considering that the ambush was initiated at 2020 hours, shore was a period of approximately 30 minutes between the time the fire mission was requested and the first round was fired. Both the artillery and the infantry must be aware of this problem when supporting ambush patrols and work to achieve more responsive fire support. When supporting ambush patrols, grids for illumination as well as HE fires should be pre-cleared if at all possible.
c. Placement of 81mm Mortar. Most of the ambush patrol members interviewed indicated that the lack of illumination immediately after the ambush was triggered significantly reduced the number of NVA KIA. The principal reason for this is discussed above. As a possible solution to the problem of quick fire and illumination support, consideration should be given to the employment of ambush patrols within the firing range of organic 81mm mortars. Inasmuch as the mortar Fire Direction Center does not have as many mandatory clearances prior to firing as does an artillery FDC, their fires can be much more responsive.
d. Cross Training in Artillery FO Procedures. Since an infantry company normally has only one forward observer team, there are not enough infantry personnel trained in the adjustment of artillery fire to accompany each ambush patrol. In this particular case, both the patrol leader and his RTO had attended the I FFORCEV Artillery Forward Observer School conducted by I FFORCEV at An Khe and were able to adjust the supporting artillery around their second position to break up a possible NVA counterattack. By crosstraining infantry personnel in adjustment of fire procedures, ambush patrols will be able to more effectively utilize artillery firepower.
e. Use of Drugs by NVA Soldiers. Over a pound of marijuana was taken off the bodies of the dead NVA soldiers. This may account for the loud talking and laughing observed prior to the ambush.
13. HISTORIAN'S COMMENTS AND ANALYSIS: The two principal reasons for the lack of a significant body count in this ambush were the amount of time required to obtain illumination so that the patrol leader could estimate the situation and the inability to sweep the contact area immediately after the ambush. All ambush patrol members interviewed specifically mentioned these two shortcomings.
FOR THE COMMANDER:
1 - ACSFOR, DA