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BINH GIA – The Battle part II

13 March 2006

Michael Martin

"The VC took our weapons and tied all of us up, including the two US advisors with our company. Second Lieutenant Hoa, my platoon leader, was next to the Americans; he was wounded too. They searched all of us; they took the boots off the American sergeant and some other personal items.

"After spending an hour clearing the battlefield, the VC withdrew through a rubber plantation leading us and the Americans into the jungle in the direction of Xuan Son.”

“I observed that the two Battalion advisors were not wounded. Lt. Hoa, even though he was wounded, was still able to walk. It was dark now, so taking advantage of this myself and Corporal Sang, who was also captured, slipped away from the group and managed to escape,” recalled SFC Dam Van Phung of the 2nd Company, 33rd Ranger Battalion.

So began the captivity of Ranger advisors Bennett and Crafts; for them, a period of uncertainty, isolation, sickness and physical abuse – conditions that would become familiar to many more American prisoners during the duration of the war.

As with other POWs in the coming years, the two advisors would be detained by the Viet Cong at several different camps, usually identified by the inmates with names referencing their locations or the degree of treatment they received from their Communist guards. Names such as: Camp S.O.B, Camp Bivouac, Camp Tay Ninh and Camp Carefree.

Distance and length of movement from camp to camp varied from two days to fourteen days. Likewise, the degree of suffering experienced by the prisoners travelling to the camps increased substantially as their health and over all physical abilities deteriorated during their imprisonment.

The VC guards, officers and interrogators, would also become the beneficiaries of the prisoners' imaginative labelling skills "Alex”, “Interrogator”, “Die Wee”, “Prevaricator” and “Pussy”, were just a few of the nicknames used by the Americans to personify their captors.

It didn't take the VC long to find out that they had a problem on their hands with Sergeant Harold G. Bennett. From the first day of his captivity, Bennett refused to cooperate with the enemy. He could not – and would not – accept the fact that he was a prisoner of war. Guys who had known or served with him would not be surprised by his attitude. Bennett was a soldier of the Old School, and was hardcore to the hilt.

Harold Bennett was a southerner from Perryville, Arkansas. He had a streak of obstinacy that had been untamed by Army disciplinarians. Before the Biny Gia operation he and Crafts had been enjoying a few words at the EM Club at Bien Hoa when Bennett lost his temper and threw a punch at a US Army Sergeant Major; it almost cost him his promotion to Staff Sergeant.

Charles McDonald (contributing writer to Behind The Lines) served with Bennett in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in the late 1950s. He remembers him as a “fine soldier and a great friend”.

Charles McKinsey, who also served with Bennett in the 101st, provided this panegyric of him: “Sergeant Bennett was a beer drinking, ass kicking, fun loving, son of a gun. I never heard any details of his capture and always wondered how they kept from killing him when he was caught. I know he didn't go without a struggle.”

A villager who was captured and released said he saw Bennett and Crafts in captivity and remembered Sergeant Bennett from a previous occasion when he had befriended the children of his village while accompanying the 33rd Ranger Battalion.

Knowing the Viet Cong, their terrorist methods, and their insensitivity to Vietnamese peasants who were unwilling to aid in their so called revolution of the people, Bennett made up his mind to escape at the first opportunity. He knew that any chance of a successful escape would be minimized the longer he waited. As they were marched away from the battlefield, he told Crafts that they should make their escape as soon as possible. “It is your decision as to when we should make a run for it,” replied the RTO. But as it grew dark the VC guards positioned themselves behind Bennett as he moved down the trail, making an escape attempt all but impossible.

They arrived at their first camp about midday on 30th December 1964 – the location is unknown. There were from 50 to 75 ARVN enlisted men, eight to ten ARVN officers, and two or three Vietnamese women being held as prisoner at the site. While there, two Viet Cong photographers took pictures of the two captured US Ranger advisors.

On the afternoon of 1st January 1965, Bennett, Crafts and their VC guards left the camp and travelled approximately two miles to another unknown camp. It was at this camp on 2nd January 1965 that they met another American prisoner, Captain Donald Gilbert Cook – the same Captain Cook who was caught in the ambush with the Vietnamese 4th Marine Battalion. He was brought into the camp in a hammock early that morning with a leg wound that prevented him from walking.

The same night, Bennett and Crafts attempted their second escape. The VC had overlooked a pair of jeep keys and a set of fingernail clippers when they initially searched Bennett. That afternoon, using the keys and a little Confederate ingenuity, the two Rangers weakened the springs on the inexpensive padlocks securing the chains that bound their ankles. After dark, they used the fingernail clippers to cut through the vines binding the bars overhead. Taking off their shirts, they reversed them and tore out the white labels, then sat back and waited for the guards to make the nightly security check just like they had done on the night before.

The guards had been squatting around a fire, chatting away noisily, so the two Rangers decided that it would be a good time to get away undetected. But suddenly the guards got and went to bed, leaving only one of their number on watch. Now it was deadly quiet in the camp and the two men knew that any movement would attract the guard's attention, so they waited.

The next morning the guards were unable to open the locks at first, the springs were sprung… Still, they gave no indication that they suspected anything was wrong. They simply replaced the broken locks with US Army type padlocks, which were impossible to pick.

On 25th January, Bennett and Crafts, with Captain Cook, departed for another camp. They journeyed for about two days before stopping at a village. They remained there for four days. At the end of January both Rangers were moved to a new camp (which they nicknamed Camp S.O.B), arriving on 6th February 1965. Cook was left at the village so his wound could heal. By the middle of March, now walking on his own, he rejoined them at Camp S.O.B. It was at this camp that Bennett would make his last escape attempt, along with the other two advisors.

The three men were housed in a hut together where they made plans to escape during one of the occasions when they were allowed to answer nature's call. Leaving the hut, they walked toward the latrine when their guards stopped them, ordering Crafts back inside. Bennett and Cook kept walking past the guard towards the latrine. Suddenly, Bennett whispered, “We can't leave him behind.” Cook looked at him and whispered back, “I'm in command here, and this is my decision. Let's go!”

They hadn't gone very far when Bennett's foot got caught in the undergrowth. Being too weak by then from weeks of vomiting, diarrhoea and not enough food, he was unable to free himself. At this time, one of the guards caught up with Bennett. As the VC turned to call for help, Bennett hit him and put his hand over his mouth to muzzle his shout. Cook then hit the guard several times but was unable to render him unconscious. In the course of the struggle the guard nearly bit off one of Bennett's fingers.

Suddenly, another guard showed up and forced the two Americans back to camp at gunpoint, where both were handcuffed and shackled and kept that way for several months. In addition, the VC clubbed Sergeant Bennett on the side of the head, knocking him to the ground. Later that night, two Viet Cong officers came in and pointed their pistols at the two men threatening, “We are going to kill you. We have the authority to kill you!” Bennett's time was running out.

In mid May the three Americans and a party of VC guards left Camp S.O.B for another POW camp, believed to be in Tay Ninh province. Bennett had lost a tremendous amount of weight and was growing steadily weaker. His stomach was constantly upset and he stopped easting the rice that his captors gave him. He despised the VC and refused to kowtow to any of them. He swore at them continuously, using a few choice Down Home obscenities. It was becoming more and more difficult for Bennett to reconcile the fact that he was a prisoner of war.

The Viet Cong hated Bennett as much as he hated them. They beat him severely on several occasions, striking him with their rifle butts. Once, he got into an argument with and it was becoming more and more difficult for Bennett to reconcile the fact that he was a prisoner of war.

Once, he got into an argument with one of the guards who pointed his submachine gun at him. Bennett stood his ground ad dared the enemy soldier to fire his weapon. But the travelling had now become an obstacle for Bennett. In his present physical condition, and with suffocating jungle heat, he was having a hard time keeping up. The guards vented their anger on him by kicking and punching him at every opportunity. The weakened Ranger would not let then hear him utter a whimper. He only grimaced and glared back at them defiantly.

In the early morning hours on 28th May 1965, the three prisoners and their guards set out on the final leg of their journey. They had travelled no more than two or three miles when the VC stopped and told the POWs to sit down. Sergeant Bennett was some distance behind, out of view of PFC Crafts and Captain Cook. Three of the guards were sent to the rear. When they returned a short time later, they reported, “We have killed Bennett.”

In Camp Tay Ninh, around the middle of July 1965, a ranking communist officer told Crafts and the other US prisoners that Sergeant Bennett had been punished severely for attempting to escape. The officer informed them that Bennett was at a camp trying to redeem him self. In October or November 1965, a VC interrogator told Crafts and Cook that the South Vietnamese government had made a decision to execute two Viet Cong that they considered to be terrorists. The NLF threatened to retaliate by executing a POW named Hawks. The Saigon government ignored the threat and executed two other VC instead of the original pair. The Communists responded by immediately executing Sergeant Harold G. Bennett in place of Hawks.

I heard of the execution of Ranger Bennett over Armed Forces Radio in late 1965. The broadcast stated that Bennett was a Ranger advisor and the first American to e executed by the Viet Cong. To the families, friends, loved ones and comrades in arms of the still unaccounted for MIAs and POWs and to fellow Ranger Sergeant Harold G. Bennett, I dedicate this story.

SOME GAVE ALL!

“We are to remember our prisoners as if war chained to them…”

A Biblical Quote

SIDEBAR
The ordeal of PFC Charles Crafts must not be overlooked. He was an eyewitness to the saga of Ranger Bennett. As a young soldier assigned to a foreign unit where the country and its people were alien to him, his capture by the Viet Cong in his first taste of combat was a trauma in itself. He resisted and survived the cruelties of a harsh and tenacious enemy, hardened by years of combat.

During his captivity he suffered the same agonies of physical and psychological torture that Bennett and the other POWs endured: solitary confinement in shackles and handcuffs, restrained from communicating with other POWs, propaganda indoctrinations, little food and forced marches through dense jungle – at one point (28th October 1966) he departed a camp with two other prisoners and walked for 14 days to the next camp.

PFC Crafts was released by the communists on 12th January 1967. During his imprisonment he came into contact with several other Americans including three civilians and four Special Forces NCOs. The four were: SFC Isaac Camocho, SFC Kenneth Roraback, SGT Claude D. McClure.

At 2200 hours on 9th July 1965, Camacho escaped from Camp Carefree. Smith was supposed to escape with him, but decided not to at the last minute because a night lamp had been placed near his bed had illuminated his sleeping area, making his absence immediately noticeable to the guards. SFC Camacho's escape plan was known by all the POWs and had been delayed a few days to coincide with the rainy season.

The two US prisoners that most vividly filled the recollections of Charles Crafts are US Marine Captain Donald G. Cook, who he met on 2nd January 1965 and US Army Captain John Schumann, who arrived in a camp he was being detained at on 4th July 1965. Cook was the senior POW leader in the camps with Crafts; Schumann outranked him but due to his sickness, he felt that Cook should remain in charge. Captain Schumann suffered from kidney infection and acute pneumonia. He died in Crafts' arms on 7th July 1966. Schumann had been an advisor to a local Vietnamese commander at the time of his capture. The Code of Conduct makes some profound statements in regard to a leader's personal responsibility and the military's expectations of him while a prisoner of war. Captains Cook and Schumann exemplified this charge. Captain Cook provided a list of pertinent facts and recommendations – to include promotions and awards – that pertained to the prisoners, for Crafts to provide to the US Military Intelligence authorities in the possibility that he might be released. He had recommended Sergeant Bennett for the Silver Star. Schumann had recognized three NCOs on his advisory team for Bronze Stars.

Crafts hid this information and other personal letters to family members of the POWs in a slit in the case for his eyeglasses. He was able to conceal this valuable information and bring it out with him on his release at a great personal risk to himself – even jeopardizing his own freedom. In November 1966, Crafts, Cook and a Sergeant Womack were moved to a camp believed to be in Bien Hoa Province. Crafts left it on the 16th February 1967. It was the last time he would see Captain Cook who reportedly died in captivity during that same year.

“If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available…"

Read BINH GIA – The Battle part I

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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