During the Tet Offensive of 1968 SFOD-A 101's aggressive defense of the CIDG camp at Lang Vei, Republic of South Vietnam interdicted, disrupted, and attritted the 304th Regiment of General Vo Nguyen Giap's North Vietnamese Army. The assault on Lang Vei was the first use of armor against American ground forces in Vietnam...
In early 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese Army was losing the Battle for Hue and Giap thought a successful attack of the isolated Marine combat base at Khe Sanh would draw US forces away from Hue. Seizing Khe Sanh would also allow increased infiltration of NVA forces and equipment into South Vietnam from the Ho Chi Minh trail across the Laotian border. Overrunning the Marines at Khe Sanh would be a major defeat for US forces. It could be another Dien Bien Phu.
In Vietnam in 1968, Lang Vei was just one of the ten "A" camps of C Company, 5th Special Forces Group. Relatively unknown to most soldiers in Vietnam, it would soon make the front pages of Time and Newsweek. The A-team camps were normally manned by CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Groups) strikers, a South Vietnamese Special Forces Team (VNSF/LLDB), and a Special Forces Operational Detachment "A" Team (SFOD-A). The original Special Forces camp in that area of operations was established in Khe Sanh Village in July of 1962 (see Map 1). However, in December of 1967, SFOD-A 101 was moved west to Lang Vei from Khe Sanh so that the Marines could occupy Khe Sanh. The first camp named Lang Vei was abandoned on 4 May 1967 after NVA regulars, aided by CIDG infiltrators, penetrated the camp's defenses. The new Lang Vei was moved approximately 1,000 meters west and built to withstand another siege.
SFOD-A 101 moved into the camp in September of 1967 and began operations. Lang Vei was situated only 1.5 kilometers from Laos and 35 kilometers from the DMZ. (see Map 2) It straddled Highway 9, just eight kilometers from about 9,000 Marines at Khe Sanh. Lang Vei's mission was surveillance of the Laotian border and the DMZ, as well as interdiction of enemy infiltration routes. To accomplish this task the camp commander, CPT Frank C. Willoughby, had four under strength rifle companies of Bru Montagnards and local Vietnamese, three combat reconnaissance platoons, a VNSF team, and his own thirteen-man SFOD-A 101. Altogether the troops defending Lang Vei totaled about 480 men.
The camp was heavily equipped with crew served automatic and indirect fire weapons and had two 106mm recoilless rifles as well as one 57mm recoilless rifle for each of the four companies. One of the 106s was emplaced in the 2d Combat Reconnaissance Platoon's sector to cover the southern avenue of approach into Lang Vei from Lang Troai Village (see Diagram 1 below or click here for larger image 24Kb). The other recoilless rifle was positioned in the 3d Recon Platoon's sector providing flanking fires on any vehicle targets moving along Highway 9. Each 106mm recoilless rifle had over 20 HE rounds. Artillery support for the camp included sixteen 175mm guns, sixteen 55mm guns, and eighteen 105mm howitzers. Fire support was well planned - Willoughby registered a variety of concentrations, emphasizing likely avenues of approach and suspected enemy staging areas.
The buildup at Khe Sanh continued as part of GEN Westmoreland's plan to stop the infiltration of NVA units down the Ho Chi Minh trail and draw large concentrations of GEN Vo Nguyen Giap's NVA Divisions into a conventional set piece battle. Although many compared the deployment of forces at Khe Sanh with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Westmoreland was confident that superior American technology and firepower would defeat the NVA. The Special Forces camp at Lang Vei continued its intelligence collection mission with the intent of providing early warning of the widely hoped for NVA attack.
Giap was also building up his forces in preparation for the Tet Offensive and by January of 1968 several NVA divisions encircled the Marines at Khe Sanh, putting the nearby, and more westerly, camp at Lang Vei at risk. During this NVA buildup Lang Vei's CIDG patrols encountered such heavy contact with elements of the NVA 324B Division that by December the indigenous troopers refused to patrol outside the camp's perimeter.
Willoughby needed help. Schungelís headquarters sent help in the form of the Mobile Strike Force or "Mike Force" from the C Detachment in Ban Me Thuot. The Mike Force "strikers" were well-armed indigenous troops (in this case 196 Hre Montagnards from Ban Me Thuot) led by experienced Special Forces troopers. The Mike Force was trained to operate in the midst of enemy held territory. Many were qualified paratroopers. The Mike Force, while successful in their previous missions, had suffered heavy casualties and the remaining combat-hardened veterans of the Mike Force (under the command of 1LT Paul Longgrear) were airlifted into Lang Vei on 22 December. They immediately began running patrols into Laos. The Mike Force recon patrols soon produced results.
In January, they found an empty tank park just a few kilometers across the river, which contained fresh impressions of tracked vehicles. According to one of the Special Forces NCOs leading the Mike Force the reports sent to Khe Sanh and Saigon were dismissed by the brass as exaggerated or false...."You guys are just trying to make yourself look good. The NVA haven't got tanks!" On 24 January an Air Force FAC spotted five tanks along HWY 9 and called in an air strike destroying one vehicle.
That same day, Laotian troops of the 33rd Royal Laotian Battalion (sometimes referred to as the 33rd Laotian Volunteer Battalion) and their families appeared at Lang Vei. Their base at Ban Pho, just 12 kilometers from Lang Vei, was overrun two days earlier by elements of the 304th and 325th NVA Divisions. According to the Laotian commander the attack was led by tanks. Willoughby believed the Laotians fled at the very first sight of the enemy since their weapons were unfired and their column contained no wounded. With the arrival of the terrified Laotians the Special Forces troopers began to take the possibility of a tank attack very seriously and 100 LAWs (66mm Light Anti-tank Weapons)2 were immediately airlifted into the camp.
An NVA POW soon provided further confirmation of both the impending attack on Lang Vei and the presence of NVA armor in the vicinity. On 30 January 1968 NVA Private Luong Dinh Du wandered into Lang Vei. He walked right past the dozing Montagnard gate guards and into the team house, causing its somewhat disconcerted occupants to dive for cover. Private Luong was a rifleman from the 8/66 Regiment, 304th NVA Division. His unit had suffered heavy casualties in attacks against Marine positions around Khe Sanh, so he had deserted his regiment to " Chieu Hoi," surrender. Luong cooperatively answered the Special Forces interrogator's questions. Yes, he said, his unit was preparing to assault Lang Vei. As part of a sapper team he participated in a reconnaissance of the camp two nights previous to his surrender. Luong said he hadn't seen any tanks supporting his unit. He was turned over to Marine interrogators at Khe Sanh and after further questioning admitted he had heard the clanking of armored vehicle "tracks" which he thought were probably tanks.
Training on the newly arrived LAWs was limited to Willoughby's team and ten of the CIDG troops. After a live fire practice there were only seventy-five LAWs left. Unfortunately the Special Forces soldiers discounted the actual possibility of an armor assault on Lang Vei. They expected the tanks, when and if they came, to function in a fire support role by firing their guns from the cover of the jungle.
The camp defenses weren't designed to repel a tank assault. Lang Vei, situated on a small hill, had a dog-bone shaped perimeter. The camp, built under the 'fighting camp' concept, was surrounded by a chain link fence (to prematurely detonate RPG rounds) and a triple strand of concertina wire fifty meters wide laced with Claymore mines. Bunkers with overhead cover were constructed of sandbags and eight-by-eight timbers (a rarity in Vietnam.) All positions had good fields of fire and were mutually supporting. Each interior platoon or company position was ringed with additional wire and Claymores. Special Forces camps were designed to prevent their capture, like that at A Shau in 1966, by human wave assaults of VC or NVA coupled with an interior attack by CIDG infiltrators. The technique of prior infiltration of VC into the CIDG ranks was used in nearly every attack on a CIDG camp and was difficult to prevent where ethnic Vietnamese made up the strike force. Because of this there were no noncombatants allowed inside the camp's perimeter and the Laotians were initially disarmed by the Mike Force.
The Mike Force patrols began to make enemy contact daily. The Mike Force and Lang Vei companies were Montagnards of different tribes with the possibility of friction between the two groups so Willoughby stationed the 161 man Mike Force outside the camp to act as an observation post about a half-mile to the west along Highway 9. The Mike Force was offered as reinforcements to the Marines fortifying Khe Sanh Village after a failed NVA attack on 22 January, because Willoughby wanted to maintain the only physical link between Lang Vei and the Marine combat base.
The Marines' commander, COL David E. Lownds, refused and the Marines withdrew to their combat base outside of Khe Sanh. The two Marine rifle companies assigned the contingency mission of relieving a besieged Lang Vei would have to move through a village now occupied by an NVA regiment. The Marine commanders at Khe Sanh remembered the Special Forces camp at A Shau, which had asked for Marine help as it was being overrun in 1965. Help never arrived and the survivors of A Shau were forced to escape and evade capture in the jungle for several weeks. The Marines promised that wouldn't happen at Lang Vei.
On 31 January a patrol from Lang Vei made contact with an estimated battalion of NVA near Khe Sanh village. This prompted Willoughby to strengthen his defenses by pulling two thirds of the Mike Force into the camp. The remaining Mike Force troopers remained in their observation post. A six-man Special Forces augmentation team flown in from Da Nang assisted the approximately 500 Laotians troops to refortify Old Lang Vei. The six Special Forces advisors provided food, ammunition, medical assistance, and barrier material to the Laotians.
Enemy activity around Lang Vei increased during the first week of February. The Mike Force patrols made contact daily. Willoughby knew attack was imminent when his camp received fifty rounds of 152mm artillery fire on the night of the fifth. On 6 February 1968 at 0042 hours the NVA assaulted Lang Vei. Sergeant John Early, a Mike Force platoon leader, heard NVA sappers outside the wire at 2230 that night and sent two Montagnards with bayonets to capture them for interrogation. As Early recounts the incident: "...a grenade exploded near the edge of ....(my) hole and a trip flare bathed the perimeter in whitish light. In the glow, (I) saw large numbers of the enemy rising from the ground, so many in the initial rush that they seemed to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder." The fight for Lang Vei had begun. The Lang Vei defenders could plainly see two tanks out in the open in the light of a trip flare.
At least nine, possibly as many as thirteen, Russian-made, PT-76 light reconnaissance tanks drove up to the Lang Vei perimeter. The armor came right up to the camp's wire. The NVA drivers casually climbed out and smoked cigarettes on the turrets before buttoning up and driving over the defensive perimeter. Standing in their cupolas the commanders gave orders to sappers cutting a hole in the wire-mesh fence. Both sides opened up at once. Lang Vei's assistant medical specialist, SGT Nickolas Fragos, was probably the first to see the tanks. Perched in an observation tower Fragos could see two North Vietnamese soldiers kneeling calmly in front of the lead tank, trying to cut through the barbed wire barrier in front of Company 104. He radioed Willoughby, telling him, "We have tanks in our wire!" Willoughby called Early for confirmation. Early confirmed Fragos sighting by yelling, "Jesus Christ, I've got five tanks and a couple of hundred gooks on top of me. They're all over the place, Get me some illumination," into his handset.
Willoughby was in the command bunker with LTC Daniel F. Schungel, the commander of Special Forces in I Corps. Schungel was in camp as an act of diplomacy. The Laotian Lieutenant-Colonel refused to take "advice" from Willoughby, a company grade officer, so Schungel maintained a rotation of field grade Special Forces officers in Lang Vei. Tonight was his turn. The camp radio operator desperately yelled for help over the Marine artillery fire direction center frequency. He had problems convincing the Marines at Khe Sanh that Lang Vei actually had tanks attacking its perimeter. Meanwhile Schungel started organizing anti-tank teams and arming them with LAWs. Willoughby concentrated on calling in his preplanned artillery fires and an AC-47 "Spooky" flare ship for illumination.
The Hre Montagnards of the Mike Force had never seen tanks before. They attempted to hold their perimeter, but were overrun and forced to fall back. The defense of their perimeter bought Willoughby a valuable 30 minutes to further organize the defense of Lang Vei. By 0100 what was left of the Mike Force defending the east side of the camp consolidated their positions by the 81mm Mortar pit on the TOC's east side. Artillery from Khe Sanh began to fall around the camp's perimeter and a FAC directed F-4 Phantom and A1-E Skyraider air strikes.
Inside the perimeter the fight continued. SFC James Holt quickly killed two tanks with a 106mm recoilless rifle from the 2d CRP area on the camp's south side. He continued firing, destroying a third tank before running out of ammunition. Despite the artillery and air support and Holt's success with the 106, the NVA continued to advance. Special Forces NCOs fired 4.2-inch mortars at charge zero and maximum elevation into enemy held sections of the camp, but the NVA continued to overrun the perimeter of Lang Vei.
The outer perimeter fell into NVA control and by 0130 they controlled the eastside of the camp. Two tanks rolled in from the north and overran the 104 company perimeter. The survivors fell back to the 2d and 3d company rally points, exposing the 101 company flank. Two more tanks followed form the north to assault the 101st company perimeter. Unable to stop the NVA armor the CIDG broke and ran. NVA overwhelmed the north end of the camp as three more tanks and two platoons of infantry hit the 102d and 103d. The three tanks soon rolled over the 102d and 103d company areas. Surrounded CIDG survivors attempted a desperate breakout along HWY 9 to Khe Sanh, but were cut down.
Schungel's two- man hunter-killer teams used LAWs against the PT-76s in a running man-versus-tank battle throughout the camp's perimeter with varying effect. Some of the LAWs failed to fire. Other LAWs bounced off the glacis of the light-skinned tanks without detonating. Schungel and others, exasperated by the faulty rocket launchers, assaulted the remaining tanks with white phosphorous grenades. According to SGT Early, "in the confusion, most defenders tried to meet the tanks head-on instead of from the less protected and more vulnerable rear. Vietnamese, Montagnards and Americans fired rifle grenades, machine guns, LAWs and finally in desperation, climbed onto tank hulls, trying to pry open hatches ..."
Around 0300 NVA tanks rolled on top of the TOC. The NVA controlled the entire camp except for the TOC bunker manned by eight surviving Special Forces troopers and roughly forty indigenous soldiers. The NVA called upon the defenders to surrender. Some of the LLDB and CIDG surrendered to the NVA and were summarily executed. Other SF and CIDG personnel hid in the camp and later escaped, evading capture. The survivors in the bunker requested the relief force from Khe Sanh. Marine commanders refused to comply with the contingency plan.
SFC Eugene Ashley, one of the Special Forces NCOs with the Laotians at Old Lang Vei, led four separate counterattacks on Lang Vei with a force of CIDG stragglers and Laotian troops. Ashley was wounded on the fourth attempt to relieve the TOC bunker. He received a second and fatal wound later that day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Because there were no helicopters available, Special Forces volunteers could not mount a rescue attempt to save the remaining defenders. Fortunately the survivors made an escape at 1600 under the cover of air strikes. By 1800 the battle was over and the few survivors evacuated to Khe Sanh. Most of the 484 Bru, Hre, Vietnamese and American troops Lang Vei were either dead or captured.
War correspondent Michael Herr, in his book Dispatches, wrote, "The Marines at Khe Sanh saw the Lang Vei survivors come in. They saw them and heard about them up in their Special Forces compound, holding off all visitors at rifle point, saw their faces and their unfocused stares, and they talked quietly among themselves about it. Jesus, they had tanks. Tanks!....."
Why did Giap commit 13 tanks and a regiment to take Lang Vei? Lang Vei was key terrain. It was strategically located along Highway 9, a major egress of the Ho Chi Minh trail and on the line of communication to Khe Sanh. Giap had to destroy Lang Vei for two reasons:
But the defenders of Lang Vei destroyed over half of the NVA armor force. NVA troop losses were much larger than expected, preventing them from concentrating an attack against the U.S. Marine combat base at Khe Sanh. The attrition of NVA units at Lang Vei caused a strategic shift in NVA troop deployments. Heavily attritted NVA units, which were engaged in combat at Lang Vei and around Khe Sanh, were later committed to Hue with little effect.
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