There have been many occasions during the Vietnam Conflict when armor and cavalry units have been called upon to demonstrate the effectiveness of the tank as a fighting vehicle capable of performing practically any mission. Certainly the tank and, even more, the tanker have been given tasks of many varieties, including those for which armor was originally developed and some previously unforeseen. But only once so far has this man-vehicle team functioned in its best role--the destruction of enemy armor.
The date: early evening of 3 March 1969. The place: a far-flung special forces camp near Ben Het, South Vietnam perched in the rugged mountains of the Central Highlands, overlooking entrances from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laos-CambodiaVietnam border area, On this night, North Vietnamese tanks and other forces attacked the joint US and Vietnamese defenses dug into the barren hills of the camp. This engagement, although brief, marked the first time since the Korean Conflict, 16 years before, that an American armor unit had decisively engaged enemy tanks.
The North Vietnamese attack, by armor elements of the B-3 Front, came on the heels of a week-long preparation featuring daily Communist shellings of Allied positions in the Dak To-Ben Het, area. This was supported indirectly by other enemy attacks throughout South Vietnam which were part of the spring offensive which began in latter February. When this offensive started, American units were ordered into the tri-border area as reinforcements for the local defenders. Included was Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor under the command of Captain John Stovall. Company B, headquartered near the Dak To airstrip and under the direct control of the 2d Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, was given the mission of reinforcing the Ben Het outpost and of securing Highway 512, the only land link between the camp and the main Allied positions at Dak To.
In addition to elements of company B, Allied forces at the Special Forces camp included three Civilian Irregular Defense Group companies with their Green Beret advisor team, an American 175mm artillery battery and two 40mm "Dusters." Normally the tankers were deployed as a platoon along the camp's West Hill in partially dug in positions. The remainder of the company occupied strong points and bridge security positions along the 10 kilometer road link or were held as a ready reaction force at Dak To.
The company had arrived in this area of operations on 25 February and had endured the nearly continuous barrages of artillery fire laid down by Communist gunners from positions both in Vietnam and across the nearby Cambodian border. Rarely had the crew members dared to move more than a few feet from their tanks as they were busily occupied either dodging artillery fragments or answering sniper fires and small spoiling attacks with their main gun and machinegun fires.
Until the first of March, the camp had received intensive fires from heavy artillery pieces located in reinforced, dug in positions well inside Cambodia. At times as much as one round every 45 seconds had been rained on the Allied camp for protracted periods. However, the enemy guns were so located that their muzzle glow could be observed from the friendly post thus allowing the Allies to predict the incoming artillery in sufficient time to preclude heavy casualties. In an effort to penetrate the barriers protecting these enemy artillery pieces, the tanks were employed in an indirect fire role, using concrete piercing fuzes. The collocated artillery battery's fire direction center and spotter aircraft assisted with fire adjustment. This met with only limited success since the 90mm ammunition was unable to penetrate the Red defensive positions.
Around 1 March, the enemy artillery fires slackened to the point that incoming rounds were being received at Ben Het only about the time of the daily resupply convoy. Up until then, Company B had sustained about 10 casualties, most of which were minor and were treated on the spot. Several tankers were wounded repeatedly but they continued to return to their stations. By 1 March, only one man had been evacuated through medical channels.
At this time, the first platoon of the tank company held positions on West Hill with four tanks, three of which were emplaced near the crest and were generally facing west overlooking the valley through which Highway 512 wound, as it approached from the Cambodian border. Captain Stovall had come forward and established a temporary command in a nearby bunker since his platoon leader had evacuated to Dak To after suffering multiple fragmentation wounds.
The first and second of March proved to be disconcertingly quiet. The abnormal silence was disturbed only by the mortaring of the resupply convoy and a few interspersed rounds of harassing recoilless rifle and mortar fire.
Around 2200 hours on 2 March, Platoon Sergeant Hugh Havermale reported to Captain Stovall, that his men could hear vehicular movement to the west of the camp. Together, the two went forward and scanned the area with a night vision device but were unable to observe anything out of the ordinary, nor were they able to establish even a general location of the reported sounds. However they could hear the unidentified vehicles running their engines for about 20 minutes then shutting down. It seemed that possibly they were warming their engines and performing crew checks of some nature.
On the third of March, enemy activity remained at a low ebb, with only an occasional round of ha- rassing fire being received at the Allied positions. During the day, three CIDG reconnaissance patrols were dispatched from the outpost to positions about four kilometers to the north, northeast and south. east. The daily intelligence briefing by the camp commander indicated that an attack by the enemy was imminent and that the Communist forces had an armor capability. Indications were to be transformed into fact a few short hours later.
At 2100 hours that evening, the camp's central hill began receiving recoilless rifle fire from two locations. Between 2130 and 2200 the entire camp came under increasingly heavy mortar and artillery fire The tankers again began to hear the sounds of engines coupled this time with the distinctive rumbling of tracked vehicles. The men were again unsuccessfully scanning the area with both night vision scope and infrared searchlights when an enemy vehicle was suddenly illuminated as it detonated some personnel mines located approximately 800 meters from the perimeter. These caused some portion the vehicle to catch fire. In the light of this fire, three tanks and an open, tracked cargo/personel carrier were observed. Immediately, the platoon crews began taking the enemy vehicles under fire with HEAT and high explosive ammunition. And they began firing final protective fires with other organic weapons. Other tank company people immediately went into action assisting the camp's indigeneous forces in manning mortar and recoilless rifle pits or in transporting ammunition and treating wounded defenders.
Shortly thereafter, Captain Stovall received reports of a fourth enemy tank approaching the left flank of the Allied positions near the camp airstrip and a report from one of the CIDG patrols that it was observing an eight to 15 vehicle column moving east toward the camp from the border area. He then called for illumination rounds from the camp mortar squad. The tankers continued their fires, making direct maingun hits on at least two enemy tanks and the carrier, causing them to burst into flame.
In the meantime, Captain Stovall had mounted one of the M48s. As he stepped behind the turret onto the back deck, a large fireball followed immediately by the concussion from an enemy tank round exploding on the glacis flung him clear of the back deck. This also blew the tank commander out of the cupola and 10 feet to the rear of the tank, The enemy round inflicted heavy shrapnel wounds on both Captain Stovall and the tank commander. It also killed the loader and the driver who had been manning an externally mounted machinegun. It became apparent that the tank had received a direct hit from one of the Red vehicles after its position was compromised by a descending flare. Nevertheless, the M48 again joined in the battle as other crews were scrambled to fill its fighting positions.
The exchange of fires continued for a short while. Gradually, the enemy fire began to diminish as it became clear that the attacking enemy vehicles were withdrawing and that a final assault was not going to take place. The tankers scored several more HE hits on one of the enemy hulls which reduced it to a pile of rubble. Reinforcements in the form of the tank company's second platoon arrived. Platoon leader Lieutenant Ed Nickels took charge of the company. An AC47 "Spooky" gunship arrived on station and began to harass the enemy's withdrawal. The rest of the evening remained quiet with only an occasional round fired by some rifleman, and the normal artillery fires.
The next morning, an investigation of the battlefield revealed two PT76 hulls and a burned-out carrier which had been left behind by the attacking forces. Further combat patrolling in the area closer to the border turned up an abandoned enemy vehicle assembly area but gave no further information on the enemy unit. Total casualties within Company B were two killed and two wounded. The M48 tank which had received the direct hit, had no damage other than a broken machinegun charging handle.
There has yet to be put forth a logical explanation of why the NVA mounted this particular attack on the Ben Het camp. The attack was brief and lacked assault infantry. Indeed, there was not even an attempt to stop the reinforcing units coming from Dak To. There was no enemy gain other than a possible diversion for some other enemy activity., It is quite possible that the enemy was unaware of the presence of the US tanks at the camp since these had been there a comparatively short time and were fairly well concealed in their dug in positions. It seems doubtful that the enemy would have committed his scarce armor resources had he known of the obviously superior armor capability of the defenders.
Nevertheless, the battle of 3 and 4 March 1969 placed a new page in the history of the US forces in the Vietnam Conflict and in the annals of armored warfare. Company B, previously a winner of the Presidential Unit Citation in Vietnam, added a new and bigger tally to its excellent war record and continued its role as one of the select group of Armor fighters in the II Corps area of Vietnam.
Certainly the previous episode is in no way reminiscent of the armor battles of past conflicts. But it pointedly illustrated again that the tank and its crewmen provide the best antitank defense.
CAPTAIN GERALD R. Cossey, Armor, was commissioned in June 1965 from Western Kentucky University. Prior to attending the Armor Officer Basic and the Airborne Courses, he served as a tank platoon leader with the 4th Battalion, 37th Armor and transportation section leader with the 5th Battalion, 33d Armor at Fort Knox. In December 1965, he was assigned to the 3d Battalion, 68th Armor, 8th Infantry Division in Mannheim, Germany where he served as a tank platoon leader, battalion S4, and company commander. In 1968, he was reassigned to Vietnam, attending the Ranger Course enroute, and served with the 4th Infantry Division staff as an assistant G4, Chief of Supply. In early 1969, he was reassigned to the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor where he served as adjutant, company commander and S3. In July 1969, he returned to CONUS to attend Armor Officer Advanced Course 2-70. He is now on ROTC duty at Alfred University.The original copy of this article was graciously contributed for scanning by Leonard "Turret" Marone.
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