Special Forces shoulder sleeve insignia.

War Story: The Magnificent Sacrifice - Part III

06 February 2006

William R. Phillips

In the TOC with Willoughby were Longgrear, Emmanuel Phillips, Brooks Early and Moreland, Fragos, and Dooms Also there were the VNSF camp commander and sergeant major, 104 Company commander, Willoughby's interpreter, a C.I.D.G communications specialist, and approximately three dozen other indigenous personnel.

One of the fifteen-ton tanks rolled onto the top of the TOC in a futile attempt to crush it. NVA sappers were doing their best to destroy the seemingly impervious bunker. Satchel charges were thrown down the main entrance and tower. Continuous attempts by the NVA with satchel charges and grenades still could not force the surrender of the Green Berets in the TOC.

About this time, Willoughby called Khe Sanh for an artillery barrage directly on his position, and asked the Marines to execute the rescue orders. His situation was desperate. The Marines could comply with the artillery request, but the rescue effort would not be made. The certainty of ambush ruled out the fastest route, along Route 9. An attempt overland through the jungle would take far too long and would also be met with ambushes. Helicopters could not land troops at Lang Vei camp while it was under attack with tanks sitting in wait. Rescue was just not feasible, even though the designated Marine unit were chomping at the bit.

News of the rescue turndown by the Marines soon reached the commander of all the Special Forces in Vietnam, Colonel Jonathan F. Ladd. Ladd was furious. He called Saigon immediately, demanding to speak directly with General William Westmoreland. Westmoreland was awakened, assessed the situation and replied that he could not overrule the decision of the commander who was actually on the ground. Westmoreland did authorize the use of Firecracker, a secret new weapon. Fired by an artillery piece, Firecracker appeared to land like a dud. Instead, it scattered hundreds of small grenade-type explosives that then detonated, covering a wide area with a man killers.

By 0130 hours the TOC had lost all radio contact with the outside world. The next radio contact for the TOC would be fur hours later with Old Lang Vei. For the next seven to eight hours after they lost their commo, the SF command centre would be continually blasted by grenades and satchel charges. The enemy used fragmentation, thermite, white phosphorus and tear gas grenades in an effort to destroy the occupants of the TOC or force their surrender. At 0600 hours a thermite grenade thrown down the tower started a fire that the Greeen Berets put out after fighting it for nearly twenty minutes. Fortunately the fire did not spread before it was extinguished due to a lack of ventilation. But the tear gas grenades that followed did last, and for the very same reason. The available gas masks were shared by the trapped men. Willoughby ordered them to bury their dog tags and ID cards so that the NVA would not be able to rip them off their necks if they finally the fatigued and harried defenders and claim them as prisoners of war, even if they were killed in action. Those without gas masks kept their heads as close to the floor as possible. The sappers who were on top of the TOC called down the tower in Vietnamese, saying that they were about to blow up the bunker, and invited its defenders to surrender. The indigenous personnel had been able to survive this far, but they decided it was time to surrender The U.S. Special Forces soldiers thought that they were trying to break out of the TOC, and Longgrear went to the door to lead the Americans out.

As the indigenous personnel found their way up the battered stairs, Longgrear watched from the doorway. He saw the NVA immediately capture them as they emerged form the TOC. The prisoners were stripped down to their shorts by their captors and their weapons confiscated. Longgrear could hear conversation in Vietnamese between prisoners and captors. Shots from an AK-47 rang out, followed by more in close order. Many or all of the captives were summarily executed by the NVA.

From inside the bunker, the Green Berets could hear bombs, artillery fire and low flying aircraft. This would continue until about 0600 hours. After what seemed to be many hours to the SF occupants of the bunker, another unwelcome sound was heard from above. It was the sound of tapping. Tap, tap, tap. It was a sound that Longgrear would still remember twenty-five years later. The sappers were driving a shape charge that was plugged at both ends so that its full force would blast the wall along the north side of the TOC. It was obvious by now that their grenades and satchel charges were having little or no effect on the well-built bunker. The shape charge, about six or seven feet deep, was located close to the air vent. The work was effective, blowing out a portion of the north wall, about six feet wide and four feet high. This hole provided an entrance for fragmentation grenades. Willoughby was wounded by the shrapnel from a grenade shortly after 0700 hours, and finally lost consciousness about an hour later.

As the radio operators struggled with the PRC-74 to regain contact with Old Lang Vei after losing it twice, Willoughby began to worry about the men with him. In the TOC, Moreland was in critical condition, delirious. The last radio contact he had was from Tiroch at about 0200 hours, when he was reporting that he had only one round left and had tanks headed right at him.

As dawn broke, Craig and Tiroch could still hear sporadic firing. They moved to a position where they could observe the camp without being seen. At this point they saw a group of soldiers led by Sfc. Ashley, Sp4 Johnson and Sgt. Allen, medics who had been sent to help with the Laotian Elephant Battalion, preparing for a counterassault on the eastern perimeter. It had taken a lot of fast-talking by the Green Berets at Old Lang Vei to convince the Lao colonel to send a relief force of volunteers under American command for a counterattack to relieve some of the pressure on the beleaguered defenders.

The NVA were in defensive positions vacated by the C.I.D.G. Although Ashley wanted to counterattack soon after the battle commenced, the Laotian battalion commander refused to let his men attack before dawn. The three Green Berets had already led one counterattack, which had nearly reached the centre of camp before being driven back by a hail of enemy machine gun fire. Ashley pulled his men back to Route 9 to regroup and request an air strike before their next counterattack.

Craig and Tiroch joined the second counterattack, which met with a volley of 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds. Still they kept coming. The NVA threw grenades and hit them with automatic weapons fire. Just twenty-five metres from the enemy held bunkers, the Laotians again lost heart, as they had in the first assault. After losing half his force, Ashley had to regroup once more. The next assault would not include Craig, who was wounded in the hip, and had to be forced by Ashley and Allen to remain behind.

During the third assault, Tiroch and Johnson lent support with a 60mm mortar until it became inoperable. They then picked up their weapons and joined the assault, which again came close to success. Ashley regrouped his men for yet another assault, this time asking for close support just ahead of his advancing troops. Johnson manned a 57mm recoilless rifle, knocking out several of the bunkers, and allowing the assault wave to get close to the TOC. Ashley was hit and fell. Johnson and Allen went to his aid, and the rest of the attackers lost their momentum as the NVA fire picked up. It was about 1100 hours and the last effort to rescue the besieged Green Berets in the TOC had failed. Four assaults against fortified positions with less than dedicated help from the Laotian troops showed what the Breen Berets were made of and the fact that they diverted the attention of the enemy undoubtedly kept the men in the TOC alive.

A jeep appeared from Old Lang Vei. Johnson and Allen lifted the seriously wounded Ashley into the back, and bounced down Route 9 for the old camp. Along the way the jeep stopped so that Allen could get some bandages while Johnson continued to give Ashley mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In the brief time it took Allen to jump the vehicle and sprint for the bandages, an enemy artillery round landed close enough to kill Ashley and knock Johnson unconscious.

About 0700 hours, daylight brought air support, but the ground fire around the dispensary where Schungel and Wilkens were hiding was still too heavy to attempt an escape. Approximately two and a half hours later, the two were able to crawl out from under the building a hobble to safety. Schungel saw a Forward Air Controller overhead and waved to him. The FAC, recognizing the man on the ground as a Green Beret, waggled his wings in recognition. At this time, Schungel had no idea if he and Wilkins were the only two Americans still alive at Lang Vei.

Because both were barely able to walk, they tried to start every vehicle they encountered as they tried to move quietly from the camp, but with no success. They next encountered several indigenous soldiers who had survived the still raging battle, and one of them tried to help them to his bunker. They were immediately taken under fire, and Schungel suffered still another wound, this time being knocked to the ground. Wilkins made it safely to the bunker without being hit. A VNSF came to Schungel's aid and helped him to the gate and down to Route 9. Craig saw Schungel and despite his won wounds, practically carried his Colonel to the Laotian Battalion command post at Old Lang Vei. After his wounds were treated, Schungel operated the radio and coordinated the efforts of the FAC in providing air cover to the TOC and the men still trapped there.

About 0900 hours the TOC regained radio contact with Craig in the Laotian command post at Old Lang Vei and with the FAC flying above them about the same time. When Willoughby regained consciousness about 1100 hours, he was briefed on the situation and the valiant efforts of Ashley and the other Green Berets attempting to relieve the TOC. Soon Willoughby was “on the horn” with both Craig and Schungel.

The Green Berets agreed that the best way out of the TOC was under coving fire by the World War II vintage A1E Skyraiders. The single engine propeller driven planes dropped 250 pound bombs within thirty to a hundred feet of the TOC and when their bomb racks were empty, strafed the NVA with their 20mm guns. Although the firing on the hill was stilled by the Skyraiders, occasional grenades were still tossed into the TOC. Firing erupted once more on in the north and east quadrants of the camp and again Willoughby called for close air support against these enemy positions. Willoughby told the FAC to make three “for real” bombing runs against the NVA on the hill to keep their heads down. On the next several “dry runs”, as the planes approached, Willoughby prayed that the NVA would again take cover while he and his men made their escape.

For the surviving Americans in the TOC it was time to leave. Only two of Willoughby's men had not been wounded. Moreland was in a very bad way. He had received a serious head wound when the NVA sappers blew in the north wall of the TOC bunker. When his commander, Longgear, tried to help him to his feet, Moreland became completely irrational, striking out and kicking and screaming loudly. Longgrear had no choice. He had to leave Moreland behind, or risk losing more men trying to save a dying man. Normally, medics will not inject a man with a serious head wound with morphine, but in this case it was an absolute necessity. Moreland was in grievous pain and needed relief. That relief came shortly, in the form of death.

The men from the TOC, minus the now dead Moreland, climbed out of their battered bunker and headed for safety. As they emerged form the bunker, they were immediately taken under fire from the NVA at the east end of the camp. Longgrear, who had taken the point of the small group, raked one machine gun nest with a burst of fire. Willoughby moved his men out singly and in pairs to minimize their exposure to enemy fire. Emmanuel Phillips and Willoughby carried Early.

Longgrear turned to see two NVA armed with a machine gun calmly counting a large stack of money looted from several dead MIKE Force troops. Longgrear had paid his men in cash just two days before. Realizing that the NVA machine gun crew would be able to wipe out all seven of the escaping Green Berets, he charged them. As he engaged the two NVA, his bad ankle gave way and his rifle jammed. Going down in a heap, he thought that it was the end for him.

This moment changed Longgrear's life forever. Everything seemed to stop, the jets in the sky, the sounds of battle around him, almost as if the world was waiting for him to make the next move. A surge of peace experienced by only a few covered him like a warm blanket on a cold winter's night. Just as suddenly, reality returned. The jets were zooming past, and Longgrear, spiritually a new man, struggled to his feet, using is disabled weapon as a crutch. For some reason the enemy did not fire at him. He hobbled as quickly as possible to rejoin the TOC survivors, who, battered and bruised themselves, were not moving at top speed. The little group had traversed less than 75 metres, just beyond the sight of Longgrear's spiritual experience.

True to form, Quy was waiting for them at the front gate with the jeep. They piled in and Quy put the accelerator pedal to the metal of the floorboard as they headed to Old Lang Vei and safety. It was 1600 hours.

As they reached the old camp, their dreams of safety were exploded by mortar rounds dropping in front of them. The FAC was requested to again plaster the Lang Vei camp they had just left with bombs. The men at Old Lang Vei did not know that Todd, who went off in search of hand grenades at the beginning of the battle, had ended up trapped in the medical bunker, and was still there.

While the aircraft did their thing, Schungel called for helicopters to remove the survivors to safety. His medevac requests were not answered as promptly as the requests for bombs. While the Green Berets waited, they rendered the best medical care they could for the wounded. Soon the air was filled with American war-birds. From the latest model jet fighter bombers to the 23-year old Douglas Skyraiders, they crisscrossed the sky protecting the Marine CH-53 helicopters. Helicopter gunships also swung into action. The courageous American defenders of fallen Lang Vei were coming out. Most of them, that is.

The first relief chopper descended through a flaming hell of artillery and mortars. Commanded by the Special Forces SOG commander, Maj. Quamo, the overloaded command and control aircraft took out three men who couldn't walk, along with the often-wounded Schungel and a number of others. Next came the choppers carrying in the ten Special Forces advisors and their forty C.I.D.G soldiers who would set up a temporary defensive perimeter to cover the evacuation. The exfiltration, was being coordinated by Quamo. He had shown the way when the other choppers were circling the hot LZ.

Longgrear, badly wounded himself, somehow called on a supernatural strength to clear the Lao troops that swarmed Quamo's command and control aircraft so that the wounded SF'ers could be evacuated. Longgrear, threatening them with his CAR-15, bluffed most of the Lao off the helicopter as he entered from the starboard side, even though his weapon was disabled. When he worked the bolt, the Lao backed off, not wanting to call his bluff. Longgrear putting on his most menacing look, appeared to mean business to the soldiers of the Elephant Battalion, and they didn't challenge him. Some had wrapped themselves into the cargo nets, and Longgrear had to use the butt end of the weapon to forcibly remove them. He then stood guard on the port side of the aircraft as the other Green Berets were loaded onto the starboard side. The helicopter was so overloaded that Longgrear remembers Schungel being draped across other bodies on the floor of the aircraft as it struggled to lift into the air. Although he didn't have time for a final head count, Longgrear believes to this day that there had to have been a dozen or possibly more on board as the chopper roared away to safety.

At about 1700 hours, Todd left the medical bunker and ran to the destroyed TOC, hoping to find someone else alive. As he entered the TOC, saw the body of Moreland buried in the debris. He quickly exited the TOC and spotted a helicopter taking off from Old Lang Vei. He knew that he had to get there fast as he could. Todd was fired upon until he reached the far side of the hill and was out of sight of the shooters. The other survivors from Lang Vei had already been evacuated, but the perimeter guards were still holding the LZ. Todd was successfully evacuated with them minutes later.

After the battle of Lang Vei, ten of the twenty-four Special Forces soldiers present were listed as Missing In Action. Days after the battle, the bodies of Burke and Ashley were recovered. Thompson, Brande and McMurray were released in Operation Homecoming in 1973. Holt and Dan Phillips were never seen again after the battle. Evidence seems sufficient to establish the presumptive finding of death for Lindewald and Hanna on the OP and Moreland in the TOC. Ashley was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for his leadership in the assaults to relieve the trapped Americans in the Lang Vei TOC.

Read The Magnificent Sacrifice - part I

Read The Magnificent Sacrifice - part II

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

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