The Battles of Prek Klok

Prek Klok I

The 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, had become a part of JUNCTION CITY on D plus 1 (23 February) when it was airlifted from its base camp at Lai Khe to Suoi Da. There it assumed the mission which had belonged to the 2d Battalion, 28th Infantry, of being the reserve for the 3d Brigade; it also was assigned its portion of the Suoi Da defenses. In the early morning hours of 24 February the 1st Battalion area received approximately one hundred twenty rounds of 82-mm. mortar, all within a few minutes; two were killed (including a company commander) and five wounded. Six hours later the battalion was airlifted to positions along Route 4 north of Suoi Da and, after considerable jungle clearing, went into a night defensive position on the east side of Route 4, six kilometers south of Prek Klok. (At Prek Klok was an artillery base defended by the 2nd Battalion, 2d Infantry [-]; the initial engi-neer activities leading to the construction of a Special Forces and Civilian Irregular Defense Group camp and airstrip were also under way.) The mission of the 1st of the 16th was to secure the road in its assigned sector and to engage in search and destroy operations.

The 1st of the 16th was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rufus C. Lazzell. This was the second time in less than a year that he had commanded "the Rangers." In mid-1966 he had been the commanding officer for about a month until he was wounded by a .50-caliber round in the battle of Minh Thanh Road on 9 July. The wound to his elbow was serious enough for him to be evacuated to the United States; upon his return to the division in November 1966, General DePuy gave him back his old command.

On 25 February Colonel Lazzell must have thought his outfit was hexed. First had been the mortaring at Suoi Da. This was followed on the 25th by one of his battalion's 81-mm. mortar rounds falling short and injuring two of his men. On the same day his position caught some .50-caliber machine gun rounds from a friendly mechanized unit conducting reconnaissance by fire during

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the early hours of darkness. The only damage was to an 81-mm. mortar. The next two days went fairly smoothly for "Rufe's Rangers," but the 28th would be a busy day for them.

What follows is the story of the first battle of Prek Klok and is in part drawn from an account carried in the December 1967 issue of the Big Red One's magazine in Vietnam, Danger Forward. It is also based upon other references and upon the recollections of some of us who were there. (Map 12)

At 0800 on 28 February, Company B of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, left the battalion's night defensive position located along Route 4 and proceeded east on a search and destroy mission. Twenty-five hundred meters to the front was the stream named Prek Klok; they would never reach it.

The extremely slow movement through the thick and tangled jungle was made in two columns with the 3d Platoon in the lead, followed by the 2d and 1st Platoons. Captain Donald S. Ulm (who would later receive the Silver Star for his part in the action) com-manded the company; he and his command element were located between the 2d and 1st Platoons.

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As the company pushed on, the jungle thinned somewhat and the primary obstacle to the infantrymen became the fallen trees and brush-deadfall-which was encountered at 50- to 75-meter intervals. The company employed patrols in a cloverleaf pattern as the unit moved forward. Two such patterns had been completed by the time Company B progressed a little over one kilometer from its starting point that morning.

At 1030 the lead element of the 3d Platoon received small arms and automatic weapons fire from its front. The enemy force was initially thought to be and reported a company-size unit, but when Captain Ulm learned that three enemy machine guns had been observed, he correctly concluded that the enemy force was con-siderably larger. The enemy was well concealed, but not dug in and thus not fully prepared for the fight to follow. It was a meeting engagement of the two forces.

The 3d Platoon, still in the lead, continued to receive heavy fire and was unable to gain fire superiority. Then the platoon reported being attacked on its right (south) flank as well as from its front to the east.

As was the policy within the division for most operations of this nature, artillery marching fire had been preceding the company as it moved east; it was being fired by the 2d Battalion, 33d Artillery (105-mm.), located at Artillery Base II at Prek Klok. As soon as contact was made the artillery forward observer called for a shift of fires to the enemy's location. Within minutes one of the command and control Huey helicopters of the division was over the point of contact and in touch with both the division tactical opera-tions center and, in the absence of the brigade and battalion commanders, the company on the ground. The tactical operations center was alerted to get a forward air controller airborne over the area and to be prepared to get air strikes into the area at the rate of one each fifteen minutes. Since the enemy was not dug in, the ordnance requested was CBU (cluster bomb units), which are delivered almost at treetop level with a bursting radius of thirty meters. They could be delivered very close to friendly units and were a highly lethal weapon against enemy troops in the open, even in the jungle; it was the ordnance preferred by the Big Red One for these conditions.

Captain Ulm was requested to mark the position of his troops on the ground with colored smoke and to give, as best he could, the disposition of his company with respect to the smoke. It was quickly apparent to the airborne observer that the artillery (now supported by a battery of 155-mm. howitzers at Artillery Base I-

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the French Fort to the south) had to be shifted if it were to be effective. The shift was made.

Twenty minutes after the initial contact, the enemy launched an attack from the northeast. Contact was lost between the 3d Platoon and the command group. Captain Ulm theorized that the 3d Platoon and possibly the 2d Platoon would be flanked from the direction of the renewed attack and directed the 1st Platoon to move to the left flank of the 3d Platoon. As the men moved into position the entire company area was hit by small arms fire, rifle grenades, rockets, and 60-mm. mortar rounds. The firing was intense, but it resulted in few friendly casualties. The 2d Platoon moved to the right.

At 1230 radio contact was re-established with the 3d Platoon. Captain Ulm learned that the company was in an arc-shaped formation with the 3d Platoon in the center, 2d on the right, and 1st on the left (north). From this information the airborne observer was better able to picture the disposition on the ground and adjust the artillery and air strikes accordingly. As each flight arrived over the target and its ordnance was determined, Captain Ulm was asked where he wanted it placed. Each time, a colored smoke grenade was thrown by the unit on the ground, and the strike was brought in with relation to the smoke as desired.

Captain Ulm noted that much of the automatic weapons and small arms fire was coming from the trees and that the fire was extremely accurate. The company's efforts were now directed at the expertly camouflaged and well concealed snipers in the trees.

At approximately 1300 the 2d Platoon detected movement to the west, and it appeared that the enemy was attempting to encircle the company and attack the open (west) end of the perimeter. To meet this threat, a fire team from the 1st Platoon was moved to the northwest and a squad from the 2d Platoon was moved to the southwest. As the squad from the 2d Platoon moved into position, it received heavy automatic weapons fire from the trees. The fire was returned and artillery fire was called in on the western side of the company.

Air strikes continued to be placed as directed by the commander on the ground. In more than one instance the word came to the forward air controller: "Drop it within thirty yards of the smoke." The artillery was also being brought in as close as was dared. By 1400 the battle had subsided into sniper fire, and by 1500 contact was broken. Credit had to go to the fifty-four sorties of the Tactical Air Command and the intensive artillery fire.

In the meantime Colonel Marks, the brigade commander, at

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1430 brought another company of the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, into a landing zone some six hundred meters to the northeast of the point of contact following the firing of preparatory fires around the zone. Upon landing one man was wounded by small arms fire. A second company from another battalion securing Minh Thanh was lifted into the landing zone immediately after the first had secured it; this second company was dispatched to assist Captain Ulm's unit. By 1645 a third company, also from the 1st Battalion, landed to assist in securing the landing zone and in evacuating the dead and wounded who would be brought to it.

It was not until 2130 that Captain Ulm and his company, assisted by the relieving company, reached the landing zone with their 25 dead and 28 wounded. It had been a long day. A sweep of the area of contact by the relieving company that evening and another sweep the following morning revealed 167 enemy dead and 40 enemy weapons captured or destroyed. A prisoner captured in the battle area the morning after turned out to be the assistant commander of a company in the 2d Battalion, 101st North Vietnamese Army Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division. It was his battalion which had met Company B. It appeared that meeting engagement with Captain Ulm and company prevented the North Vietnamese battalion from reaching Route 4 and attacking one of the many U.S. convoys traveling between Suoi Da and Katum.

The morning after the fight was one of those beautiful mornings typical of that time of year. An officer walking among the survivors in the landing zone and chatting with them asked one of the young soldiers: "What did you think of the artillery and the air strikes- were they coming in a little close?" The soldier turned on a big grin and replied: "Sir, I was getting sprayed all over. But God it felt good!"

In speaking to the assembled company before they choppered out of the landing zone later than morning, this same officer said:

Although many of your leaders were wounded, the company never lost control of the situation. The NCO's and enlisted men performed like the truly magnificent soldiers they are.... The medevac (medical evacuation) effort was outstanding. Considering the dense jungle in which they were working, the medical personnel, both on the ground and in the air, were professionals from beginning to end.

With that, Company B loaded onto choppers and headed for Suoi Da to be refitted and receive replacements. Five days later they were back in action.

Among those persons who more than qualified for accolades on that day, none was more deserving than Platoon Sergeant

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Matthew Leonard of Birmingham, Alabama. When his platoon leader was wounded during the initial contact, Sergeant Leonard organized the platoon defensive position, redistributed ammuni-tion, and inspired his men. While dragging a wounded soldier to safety a sniper's bullet shattered his hand, but he refused medical attention and continued to fight. Under cover of the main attack from the northeast, the enemy moved a machine gun into a location where it could sweep the entire position of Sergeant Leonard's platoon. Sergeant Leonard rose to his feet, charged the gun, and destroyed its crew despite being hit several times by enemy fire. When last seen alive, he was propped against a tree continuing to engage the enemy. Sergeant Leonard was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Prek Klok II

The second major battle of Operation JUNCTION CITY took place on 10 March. The following description of that battle is also based

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in part upon the account presented in the December 1967 edition of Danger Forward.

On the evening of the 10th, the 2d Battalion (Mechanized), 2d Infantry (minus Company B), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Collins, was securing the perimeter of Artillery fire Support Patrol Base II located at Prek Klok on Route 4, twenty kilometers north of Nui Ba Den. (Map 13) Inside the circular "wagon train" perimeter of the base were headquarters, B and C

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Batteries of the 2d Battalion, 33d Artillery (Lieutenant Colonel Charles D. Daniel), plus elements of the 168th Engineer Battalion. The engineers were busily engaged in building a Special Forces and Civilian Irregular Defense Group camp and airstrip.

The 2d Battalion's APC's (armored personnel carriers) were placed at 50-meter intervals around the base perimeter. The areas between the tracks were protected by foxholes manned by infantry-men, engineers, and artillerymen.

Just after dusk fell, the troops on the perimeter fired a "mad minute" to test their weapons and provide a show of force to the enemy. Ambush patrols and listening posts left the perimeter for their positions in the surrounding jungle. At about 2030, men of an A Company listening post to the east of the perimeter, while mov-ing into position, reported seeing and engaging three Viet Cong with unknown results. Colonel Collins placed the battalion on 75 percent alert as preplanned artillery harassing fires continued.

At 2200 the Viet Cong commenced a heavy mortar attack on the small circle of U.S. troops. Within two minutes after the first ex-plosions, countermortar fire was initiated by the heavy mortar platoons led by Sergeant First Class Kenneth D. Davis. The fire was directed to the area where it appeared the mortar attack was originating. Sergeant Davis and his platoon fired a total of 435 rounds during the battle. For some thirty minutes round after round of 120-mm., 82-mm., and 60-mm. mortar ammuntion ex-ploded inside the base. In addition to the estimated two hundred incoming rounds, the Viet Cong employed 75-mm. recoilless rifles and RPG2 antitank weapons against the perimeter of the base. Several tracks were hit; twenty U.S. troops were wounded. Cooks, maintenance crews, and medical personnel began carrying the wounded to the airstrip; helicopters evacuated the injured as they arrived.

As soon as the mortar barrage ended, Colonel Collins directed all his units to conduct a reconnaissance by fire of the area from 200 to 600 meters beyond the perimeter. The relative stillness was shattered by the noise of .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the tracks and ground mounts. The reconnaissance by fire had no sooner ended than the enemy-two battalions in strength- launched a ground attack along the eastern sector into the positions held by A Company. It was now about 2230.

Among those firing- not now in reconnaissance, but in defense- was Staff Sergeant Richard A. Griffin of A Company. During the mortar attack Sergeant Griffin had run from his sheltered position to resupply his comrades along the perimeter with ammunition. When the ground attack began, he returned to his machine gun

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and placed a heavy volume of accurate fire on the enemy. He was later awarded the Bronze Star with V (valor) device.

The 3d Brigade tactical command post at Suoi Da had been requested to provide close tactical air support, artillery, medical evacuation for the wounded, and ammunition resupply. The response to these requests was immediate. Medical evacuation and resupply were provided with the dispatch of five Hueys and a light fire team. Sixty-four sorties were flown under fire into Bases I and II. With their landing lights on, the aircraft brought in six-teen tons of supplies by sling load. One hundred tactical air sorties supported the friendly forces.

In addition to the main attack from the east, the Viet Cong launched limited attacks from the northeast and southeast. Intense fire from enemy recoilless rifles and automatic weapons struck the A Company positions. Three of their armored personnel carriers were hit by enemy RPG2 rounds; one track had received a direct hit from a mortar round.

On the southwestern side of the perimeter, C Company met the enemy's secondary attack head on. Moving parallel to the high-way along the western side of the road, the Viet Cong rushed across 500 meters of open ground to hit C Company's positions from the southwest. Continuous fire from the American weapons quickly gained fire superiority. The company never reported sighting more than a platoon of Viet Cong in the clearing, although many more enemy soldiers fired from the woods.

When the mortar attack had started, the artillery defensive concentrations which ringed the entire perimeter of the base were fired. As the enemy attacks commenced, adjustments in the fire were made toward and onto the attacks. Nearby artillery units at Bases I and III as well as the artillery in the Prek Klok base itself swept the area around the perimeter with over five thousand artil-lery rounds, while the 3d Brigade's forward air controllers directed the air strikes. An armed C-47 - "Spooky"-trained its miniguns on the Viet Cong forces to the east of the perimeter as it orbited the area.

When the first Air Force flight had arrived in the area, Route 4 was declared a fire co-ordination line between the artillery and the aircraft. To the west of the road the artillery fired and broke the enemy's assault and prohibited him from regrouping, while to the east the fighters covered the area with bombs, rockets, and 20- mm. cannon fire. The massive and devastating use of air strikes and artillery broke the back of the attack.

After an hour of fierce fighting, the brunt of the Viet Cong attack had been repelled. Sniper fire continued as the Viet Cong

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withdrew, and it was about 0430 before the last enemy round was fired. Early morning sweeps and aerial observation of the area disclosed 197 enemy killed. Five wounded Viet Cong were found and taken prisoner. U.S. losses were 3 killed and 38 wounded. The enemy left 12 individual weapons on the battlefield as well as a considerable amount of other equipment and gear.

It was determined that the attack had been made by two bat-talions of the 272d Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division. By now in JUNCTION CITY two of that division's regiments had attacked and been badly defeated. The remaining regiments would make their appearance in Phase II and be bloodied as well.

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