Le Duan prepares for his TET offensive
In 1967, when I first arrived in country, at Ankhe, near Qui Nhon, and began patrolling with my company and platoon around Bong Son, the war seemed at a stalemate. The U.S. had 200,000 troops in country and had lost 14,624 dead.
Le Duan urged his weary countrymen to be patient, and developed a new plan–coordinated attacks on more than a hundred cities and outposts across South Vietnam that would lead to a general uprising and the end of the war.
It would occur on January 31st, the first day of the TET holiday, the Vietnamese New Year. To prepare for it, he would launch a series of attacks on US/ARVN bases near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) and on the western side of the country, to lure American troops away from the cities on the coast.
The first was Con Thien near the DMZ. A Marine force had crossed into the DMZ with tanks, but were stopped by a bridge that was too narrow. They reversed direction, followed the same route toward base, and were repeatedly ambushed on the way. Then the NVA besieged the base. It was within range of NVA artillery north of the DMZ which was largely immune to counter-battery fire. More than 1400 Marines were killed and nearly 9300 wounded in the fighting in and around Con Thien. NVA losses were put at nearly 7600 killed in action and 168 prisoners of war.
To the southwest, near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the NVA struck the 173rd Airborne base at Dak To. Three companies were ordered to take Hill 875 near the base. Although the hilltop was denuded by B-52 bombs and Agent Orange defoliant, the NVA were safe in bunkers. Two U.S. companies were ambushed on the way up, and the reserve company that stayed at the bottom of the hill was surprised and pinned down. The battle lasted nineteen days. Only twenty-six out of one hundred twenty-six U.S. soldiers made it to the top.
The NVA troops slipped away, the U.S. troops retrieved the bodies of their dead, and abandoned the hill. Many felt that they accomplished nothing. This operation was reminiscent of a scene in Cologne No. 10 For Men when the company commander orders the platoon leader to bring the NVA bodies they killed in a night ambush down to the bottom of the hill. It also brings to mind my song, “Counting Bodies In The Nam” on my Skytroopers CD.
At home, anti-war demonstrations raged, and Robert McNamara sent LBJ a secret memo saying he should freeze troop levels, halt the bombing, and try to negotiate. LBJ removed him from office and made him president of the World Bank, and replaced him with Clark Clifford. The Johnson Administration was assuring the American public that victory was in sight, and by this time, there were 20,067 U.S. KIA.
Meanwhile, my company was besieging an NVA battalion in a pile of boulders near Bong Son. I wrote a song about it in 1967. My songs are like a diary of my experiences in Vietnam. View the lyrics of all my songs here. There is also a fictional description of the Rockpile operation in Cologne No. 10 For Men. In it I imagine what it must have been like for the trapped NVA soldiers.
4. Chanh Giao Cave
© Richard A. Morris 1967
[(Rockpile Operation): 23 Aug 67 through 3 Sep 67, A Co. 2/5 Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Div., trapped 74 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops in a rock pile near Bong Son. Over a 13-day siege, under the able leadership of Captain Clayton Pratt, the company killed 33 NVA soldiers, captured 41, and had one man wounded and none killed. The company received a congratulatory message from MG Tolson, CG, 1st Air Cav Div, Bong Son, RVN, 15 Sept. 1967.]
Chanh Giao Cave, A pile of boulders where they hid in the day.
Chanh Giao Cave, Their rocky fortress in the end made them slaves.
We caught them by surprise and laid siege to them at Chanh Giao Cave.
And never did our eyes leave those rat-holes for thirteen days.
Chanh Giao Cave, They wounded Willie down at Chanh Giao Cave.
But we dropped grenades until their bravest man was deathly afraid.
Then one by one they shouted “Chieu Hoi” and climbed up and out of the cave,
Except the ones that met their father’s fathers down in Chanh Giao Cave.
Keep alert, watch that hole, There’s more where they come from.
Set right there, day and night till they’re beggin’ for a crumb.
Smell the stench of rotted men wedged in a stony bed.
Brush away them pesky flies; let ‘em know that you ain’t dead.
Time is on our side men.
There are frag wounds in their hide, men.
Hunger’s clawing them inside, men.
There’s one. “Chieu hoi, chieu hoi, chieu hoi.”
Chanh Giao cave, The day we left it, it was Chanh Giao grave.
Thirty-three NVA never saw again the bright light of day.
We gave them all the choice to live or die at Chanh Giao Cave.
But only forty-one said they would not end it all at Cahn Giao Cave.
Chanh Giao Cave, Chanh Giao Cave.