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The Magnificent Sacrifice - Part II

30 January 2006

William R. Phillips

Fragos shouted into his radio handset to Willoughby in the TOC below: “We have tanks in the wire!” Again, 104 Company replied to the trip flare with a volley of fire that terminated the wire cutters. One tank commander scanned the area in his tank's immediate front with his white searchlight before just rolling over the wire.

Fragos immediately left the tower to report what he saw to Willoughby and “Crossbow”, Schungel's codename. Crossbow told Willoughby to stand by in the TOC while he went with Fragos to confirm the sighting. This was a serious turn of events for the SF camp. An attack by enemy armour, which had never before been recorded in the Second Indochina War, was much more serious than sappers blowing holes in the barbed wire followed up by the infantry penetration and exploitation practice of the NVA.

When Crossbow saw the tanks as he emerged from the TOC with Fragos, there was no question that immediate and heavy anti-tank action was necessary. He directed Willoughby to call for both air and artillery fire support on the trail from Lang Troai, from which the tanks appeared to have come. Instructing Willoughby to call for an aircraft to drop flares, and to use parallel channels to both the Khe Sanh Combat Base and Company C in Da Nang, Crossbow left the TOC to form tank-killer teams.

The tanks Fragos had seen had stopped to engage the defenders of 104 Company. The NVA tanks, which would be the first of eleven that early morning of the 7th February, were a Chinese made version of the Soviet Piavaiuschiij Amphibious Tank. The PT-76 had a welded hull to waterproof it for amphibious warfare, and weighed over fifteen tons. The 76mm main gun of the tank, which could fire at a sustained maximum rate of 15 rounds per minute with 40 rounds loaded in the ammunition ready rack, was being used at point blank range against 104 Company's bunkers and defensive position. Its 7.62mm machine gun was also blasting away at the defenders.

Crossbow sent Fragos to his guard post in the tower to retrieve several LAWs, the closest ones available. Returning quickly, Fragos handed one to Crossbow, who fired at the first tank. The PT-76 was not built to withstand anti-tank fire because of its thin skin. But the NVA had added to the tank's defensive strength against such attack by attaching various rigging to its exposed vital areas. Wire mesh, rubber matting, and especially wheel drums held in position by wire and braces across the hole in the centre, all were used by the NVA tank crewman to act as shields to deflect or prematurely detonate anti-tank rounds.

Just as the attack started shortly after midnight, Craig, who had not quite fallen asleep, was jarred into action by a barrage of 152mm rounds. He quickly aroused SP5 Dan Phillips. The two jumped into the 81mm mortar pit next to their bunker and commenced firing both illumination and high explosive rounds, targeting the four tanks moving east on Route 9 and the NVA infantry that was close behind.

As they fired, their own position came under fire. One mortar round exploded close enough to throw both men to the ground. Craig was bleeding from the ears, Phillips from the eyes. Both were deafened by the blast and suffered facial cuts. Seeing their predicament, SSG Brooks ran immediately to their assistance from his machine gun position. He found both of them dazed but conscious. Craig and Phillips soon satisfied Brooks that they could still fight, so he returned to his machine gun and they began firing the 81. The situation changed abruptly for Craig and Phillips when a nearby fuel dump exploded. When some of the yet unburned fuel started to trickle into their position, Craig told Phillips it was time to leave. They made their wary to the 4.2-inch mortar pit, joining Tiroch, Dooms, Thompson and Burke.

While Crossbow fired the LAWs that Fragos handed to him, they were joined by Longgrear, Quy, and McMurray and then by Wilkins. The camp's own 4.2-inch mortar was providing illumination as the tank-killer teams went into action.

Longgrear and Early had been trying to relax since just before dark in the 81mm mortar pit about two hundred meters southeast of the TOC. As the attack commenced, 104 Company radioed an urgent request for illumination. An additional three tanks accompanied by several hundred NVA were coming up the Lang Troai trail. Longgrear, Early and Thompson pumped out illumination rounds from the 81mm mortar.

Longgrear and his men left the 81mm mortar pit to grab some LAWs. Longgrear saw a tank amid the reddish orange and green tracers burning through the foggy night. It was headed directly toward the inner perimeter and his mortar pit. He armed a LAW failed to fire when he squeezed the rubber triggering mechanism. Early passed him another LAW. Again it failed to fire. This time Thompson handed him one, with the same results. Longgrear rearmed and tried again. This time it fired, but when it struck the amour of the tank, which it should have penetrated easily, it simply glanced off at an upward angle.

The three split up as the tank was closing on their mortar pit, firing its 76mm main gun. Early dashed for the command bunker to help out there. Longgrear dispatched Thompson to assist Brande, whom he believed to be wounded. Then Longgrear decided to try his luck once more by attacking the tank from its more vulnerable flank. He joined Crossbow at this stage of the battle.

It was just before one in the morning. Holt and Burke were manning the only 106mm recoilless rifle in action, and directing very effective fire on the tanks approaching the camp from the Laong Troai trail. 104 Company had been penetrated and was in deep trouble. The tanks were decimating the C.I.D.G on the southern perimeter with close range firepower and infantry assault by some 500 NVA. Holt was successful in knocking out two of the tanks while they were still in the wire, but two others had completely penetrated and were heading directly at Crossbow and Longgrear. It took at least five hits from LAWs to disable the one most directly threatening them. Orange sparks indicated each hit by a LAW, but it seemed as if the LAW rounds were only travelling at half speed and not delivering their normal lethal blows.

When the tank was finally destroyed by the LAWs, the three crewmen grabbed their AK-47s and crawled out to avoid being burned to death. Crossbow and Quy killed all three with small arms fire and grenades. The second tank manoeuvred around the knocked out tank to continue the attack and help exploit the penetration of the SF camp's inner perimeter. It went after Schungel's tank-killer team with both its main gun and its 7.62mm machinegun from a distance of only thirty metres. Crossbow had set up his team behind some rock-filled 55-gallon drums just outside the TOC. Longgrear was dispatched down the stairs to the TOC to bring back more LAWs and hand grenades as Wilkins joined them. The 76mm main gun of the NVA tank concentrated fire on the drums, destroying the tank-killer team's cover and at the same time blasting the TOC entrance, causing it to cave in.

The 76mm main gun blast that destroyed the 55-gallon drums protecting Schungel and several others was witnessed by Longgrear. Convinced that Crossbow had been killed, Longgrear reported this to Willoughby. Of the four men who were with Schungel at the time of the blast, only Quy was not wounded. In Schungel's opinion, the continuous stream of small arms fire poured out by the uninjured Quy was the only thing that came between his team and certain death from the NVA infantry that were trying to outflank them.

Schungel, in the midst of the already chaotic situation, saw that several tanks had penetrated the western perimeter also. Tank-killer teams quickly formed there, and one of the Green Berets, Dan Phillips, already wounded but still fighting, grabbed as many LAWs and grenades as he could carry and challenged one of the tanks head on. Phillips fired the LAWs as the blasts from the tank's main gun and machine gun were firing at him from nearly point blank range. Knowing the LAWs were not firing effectively, he wanted to get as close as he could. This manoeuvre must have startled the tank crew, as they missed him repeatedly. He and the others fired again and again, and finally destroyed the armoured behemoth before it could destroy him. By this time Phillips had completely expended his ammunition, and with the concentrated fire of the accompanying infantry dancing all around him, he escaped to a back-up defensive position to continue the fight.

When the NVA tank's main gun destroyed the defensive position of Schungel's team behind the rock filled barrels, Wilkins had been crushed between several of the heavy drums and was unconscious. McMurray had been seriously wounded. He had been blinded by the blast and his hands mangled by shrapnel. Crossbow had been thrown into the air by the blast impact, but had only been wounded slightly in the right hip, left cheek and ear. The drums that Craig had ordered filled with rocks had served their purpose.

Schungel took advantage of a very brief lull to assist McMurray to a sandbagged position where he would be more comfortable, and then returned to help Wilkins. By the time Crossbow got to him, Wilkins was just beginning to regain consciousness. Schungel helped him to move into a more secure position. Quy agreed with Schungel that they would be better off in a shell hole until first light, then lost contact with the colonel as another tank approached them from the rear. Schungel threw two grenades under it, just as it took another hit from the rear, which Schungel judged to be from a LAW. The tank exploded. Even though the hatch blew open, no crewmen appeared. The combination of two grenades under the tank and a LAW rocket in its rear was too much for this PT-76, as fire billowed from the open hatch. Schungel estimated the time of this kill to be about 0300 hours.

The camp was being overrun by the NVA in their green uniforms and steel helmets. Schungel and Wilkins, now fully conscious, decided first to go down to the TOC. They then changed their minds, being of the same opinion that Bill Craig always preached – a bunker leaves little room for fire and manoeuvre. Instead they crept down to the team house. Schungel helped Wilkins take a position behind the unfinished bar, while he took a more central position where he could observe both doors of the team house. As an afterthought, he cut the inner tube door returns so that both doors would stand open.

With flares still going off as more NVA approached the inner perimeter, Schungel could see fairly well. And at about half past three in the morning, Schungel did not like what he saw. Five NVA were approaching the team house, three armed with AK-47s and two bearing satchel charges. Luckily for Crossbow, they were tightly bunched together. He had only two magazines left and two grenades. He sprayed all five NVA with one magazine. Another group set off a satchel charge on the team house, then raked it with small arms fire. Schungel was wounded again, this time in the lower right leg. But he was still able to walk. He moved quickly back to Wilkins, who had lost his weapon in the blast against the oil drum barricade, and told him it was best to get out of the team house while they still could. Wilkins was improving somewhat, and lucid enough to recommend that they take cover under the dispensary just over a hundred metres away. They silently made their way there, reaching it about 0430. While they hid under the dispensary, an NVA platoon entered it and ransacked the place, not leaving until just before daylight.

While the cat and mouse game between Crossbow, Wilkens and the NVA was playing out, Craig and Tiroch, along with about fifty C.I.D.G fought fiercely as the superior numbers and firepower of the attacking NVA forced them toward the northeast perimeter of the compound. Cautiously, they weaved their way through the inner wire and headed for the Old Lang Vei camp. Several other Green Berets had also managed to make it through the wire. Craig thought he saw Dan Phillips and another Special Forces soldier get through the inner perimeter wire and making their way through the triple concertina of the outer perimeter. The two men were caught in a crossfire between two tanks, but Craig thought that the tanks, were firing too high to hit either of them.

Thompson, Burke and Brande had already escaped the doomed camp through the wire. Craig and Tiroch followed after them. Even though they knew where the mines and trip flares were located, it was still no stroll through the park. The northern perimeter was the only real choice they had for escape and evasion, as they could see no sign of activity there. They knew that the tanks were literally on top of the TOC, and had no idea of the situation inside, as they had previously lost all radio contact with the command centre.

Craig's group made it successfully through the inner wire, but just as they were attempting to penetrate the triple concertina of the outer perimeter, the enemy discovered them and opened fire with heavy machine guns from the eastern penetration. Craig and Tircoh, as well as about ten of the Vietnamese Special Forces personnel, were still inside the concertina. Again, the illumination appeared when they least needed it. “Spooky” and the artillery were still doing their job according to their last instructions, which was to provide illumination so that the defenders could see the attackers coming. Now the illumination was helping the enemy spot the escaping survivors. Craig and Tiroch dived into a shallow ditch nearby and waited for a full five minutes while the night was artificially illuminated. When the flares finally died out the two Green Berets dashed for the cover of some standing bamboo a hundred metres distant.

Again the Green Berets and the VNSF still with them suffered from friendly assistance. Cluster bomb units were bursting over their heads, wounding Tiroch, Craig and at least one the their VNSF comrades. The Vietnamese Special Forces with them then decided they had had enough, and they bugged out, leaving Tiroch and Craig behind. The two Green Berets then moved forward another 100 metres or more to the scant protection of a dry creek bed, where they spent the remainder of the night.

The situation inside the TOC had begun to deteriorate as the tank that destroyed the drums protecting Schungel's tank-killer team also destroyed one entrance to the TOC. By 0300 hours, two NVA tanks were firing at the two entrances to the command centre from a distance of less than 15 metres. One round seriously wounded both Early and Moreland, who had gone to the top of the TOC to retrieve an M-60 machine gun. Willoughby by this time had no idea if any Green Berets were alive in the camp above him. He couldn't get out of the TOC, and they couldn't get into him without knocking out the tanks. There were jets flying overhead, but the illumination, which by now was all coming from Khe Sanh and Spooky, since the camp mortars had been eliminated, was insufficient to provide targets for air support.

Part III of The Magnificent Sacrifice coming soon!

Read The Magnificent Sacrifice - part I

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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