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THE BATTLE OF THE ANGEL’S WING: A CHARLIE COMPANY EPILOGUE
by Jay Phillips
On the night of March 8-9, 1969, elements of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, occupying widely-separated platoon-size night defensive positions (NDPs) in close proximity to the Cambodian border, were attacked and overrun by multi-company forces of North Vietnamese Army regulars, supported by multiple heavy anti-aircraft weapons. Charlie Company (Tall Comanche) was not involved in that action and did not suffer any casualties. However, commencing in the early morning hours of March 9, Tall Comanche did move to relieve the 1st Platoon of Bravo Company. These are my recollections of that day.
According to the official Combat After Action Report (AAR) issued on 25 March 1969, the battalion commander did not decide to commit C/2/5 to the support of B/2/5 until approximately 0400 hours on 3/9/69. Tall Comanche was notified of this decision at 0415 and began moving shortly thereafter from a position about 1800 meters from the location of the 1st Platoon of B/2/5, reaching that platoon’s NDP at shortly after 0530.
In my memory (clearly erroneous, in this case), the move began earlier in the night and was of some duration. As I recall, we occupied a position in a swampy area near one of the waterways (where we had, on at least one other occasion, some success in ambushing enemy supply parties moving at night). During the early part of our movement, I distinctly recall at one point that we had to cross a very large and muddy paddy or swampy field, and some members of the company became momentarily ensnared in the morass and could only complete the crossing with assistance from others.
My squad, the First of the First Platoon, was on point on this day. The move – once we were out of the area of inundation – was over dry, open rice paddy land with widely scattered huts on slightly higher ground and usually encircled with a hedgerow or trees.
At around first light, we approached the position of the Bravo Company platoon. Although the AAR indicates that we were “guided into position” by the Bravo Company commander from that company’s main NDP (some 500 meters distant from the 1st Platoon laager) through his observation of a strobe light carried by our “lead element”, I do not recall this. It is possible, of course, that someone in the platoon or company HQs was carrying the strobe. As the AAR notes, there was bright moonlight on this date, providing approximately 70% illumination, and I believe we relied primarily on the compass and on flares or other signs of battle, during the early part of our march. Interestingly, although the AAR states that at 0530 we were “within 400 meters of the position”, it also states: “The fight raged from 0315 until 0545 at the first platoon position.” Clearly, had we been only 400 meters away from a still-raging firefight, I would have seen this on point. The fact is there was no combat at the time we neared Bravo Company. I very clearly recall my squad shouting “Charlie Company, Charlie Company” as we approached the scene of the battle, as we feared that B Company survivors might mistake us for the enemy. But there was no enemy present, and we saw none fleeing; I know we did not fire our weapons on this morning.
The position of the 1st Platoon had been overrun and was the saddest sight I saw during my 21 months in country. The official US casualties, per the AAR, were 6 KIA and 19 WIA, with only two unwounded survivors. The numbers that have stayed in my memory for all these years are slightly different: 8 KIA and 21 WIA. I do remember the two survivors, who had hidden in the bottom of a foxhole under the bodies of their buddies and thereby avoided death. Several groups of fire-team size had attempted, at the last minute and under what must have been withering fire, to leave their foxholes and to evade the enemy, apparently in order to avoid an enemy RPG which had zeroed in on the US position. They were mowed down in groups within feet of leaving cover. The entire story of the action is related in the AAR, which was prepared with input from six of the survivors of the 1st Platoon battle.
Later in the morning, having evacuated the survivors and dead of Bravo Company by helicopter, C Company completed policing up the immediate area of the action. In my recollection, we discovered only two enemy bodies (the AAR notes a total of 32 NVA KIA found in the combined searches of the areas where the 1st and 2nd Platoons of B/2/5 were in contact. Perhaps the other 30 KIA were in proximity to the position of the 2nd Platoon.) Once the area had been searched, C Company – with my squad, 1-1, again on point – moved several hundred meters away to an area of some trees, fallow gardens, and perhaps also some abandoned shacks. This was one of those slightly elevated areas scattered around this region which either held or had held a homestead.
With the Company having secured the perimeter and taken a short break, the First Squad of the First Platoon (presumably because we were still the “company point” for the day) was ordered to commence a patrol in the direction of the Cambodian border, which was in evidence as a tree line some hundreds of meters to the west. I believe this was a squad patrol, but the entire platoon may well have been following along behind. Our orders were to avoid contact and I really cannot recall exactly what it was we were to accomplish, but I think it must have just been a search for additional enemy casualties or equipment that might have been left behind. We had moved just a few hundred meters in a southwesterly direction (I think) when, from almost dead ahead within the tree line inside Cambodia, we heard the sound of mortar rounds leaving their tube(s). We immediately reversed direction and had begun to return to the company perimeter, when mortar rounds began exploding in the same dry rice paddy we were traversing. Fortunately, the loose soil in the paddies absorbed a good part of the explosions, and no one was hit, although two or three rounds went off very close to us. We quickly increased our pace to a run and were soon back with the rest of Tall Comanche. The mortar barrage, which was of short duration, had also been directed against the company site, and it was evident to me that the enemy had pre-plotted his barrage, as the rounds had all been quite on target from the very first shot. The company, however, was also lucky, as no one had been injured.
During the short time our patrol had been away, choppers had arrived with a beer and soda ration for the company. The First Platoon’s share of this ration had been stacked, case upon case in a single pile, awaiting our return. Unfortunately, one of the enemy mortar rounds had scored a direct hit on this stack – sort of a “beverage bulls-eye” – and there were no drinks for us this day!
Later in the day, we left this location and moved off, I think it was to the north. On the march, we passed several well-prepared enemy anti-aircraft machinegun positions. These were not within the areas offering cover or concealment, but were right out in the open in the middle of the dry paddies, with clear fields of fire in all directions. These were circular, donut-shaped positions, offering 360-degree rotation for a .51-cal machinegun, which would occupy the central berm on a tripod while the crew could move all around the donut to direct the weapon. I do not recall any evidence of enemy casualties or equipment at these locations (I think we passed two of them, although the AAR reports a total of 8 such positions.) We did see wreckage from a destroyed aircraft, although the pieces were so badly scattered and mangled that we could not identify the type. Perhaps it had been a Huey Cobra or a jet; it did not look like any part of a UH-1, as near as we could tell. It also was not known whether the wreckage was from the previous night or from some other recent battle.
Overall, the impression that remains with me from this day is that a very well-prepared enemy launched a very well-planned attack on an American platoon which made the truly deadly mistake of occupying a previously-used platoon-sized NDP within sight (on this clear, moonlight night) of a major enemy base area just across the border in Cambodia. Having done this, the hunter soon became the hunted. Although the performance of the soldiers of the 1st Platoon of B/2/5 was heroic and although there can be little doubt that by exposing himself in the open in repeated waves of attackers the enemy suffered severe casualties, by any measure except body count this was a victory for the VC/NVA, as they achieved their precise objective: the maximization of US casualties and thereby the maximum impact on the declining morale and will of the US people to continue the war.
In part two of this commentary (to follow) I’ll comment on and critique the “Conclusions/Commander’s analysis” section of the Combat After Action Report.
November 8, 2001
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