Convoy Ambush on Highway
John Albright


When the 11th Armored Cavalry-the "Blackhorse Regiment"- arrived  in the Republic of Vietnam in September 1966, the threat of ambush hung over  every highway in the country. Since the regiment's three squadrons each had  a company of main battle tanks, three armored cavalry troops, and a howitzer  battery, the Blackhorse was well suited for meeting the challenge.

  Each of the cavalry troop's three platoons had nine armored cavalry assault  vehicles (ACAV's). The ACAV was an M113 armored personnel carrier modified  for service in Vietnam and particularly adapted to convoy escort. With the  M113's usual complement of one .50-caliber machine gun augmented by two M60  machine guns, all protected by armored gun shields, and with one of its five-man  crew armed with a 40-mm. grenade launcher, the vehicle took on some of the  characteristics of a light tank. Fast, the track-laying ACAV could keep pace  with wheeled vehicles and also deliver withering fire.

Aware that convoy escort would be a primary mission of the 11th Cavalry, the regiment's leaders had concentrated in the five months between alert and departure for Vietnam on practicing counter ambush techniques. In countless mock ambushes, the cavalrymen learned to react swiftly with fire. The first object was to run thin-skinned vehicles out of the killing zone; the armored escorts would then return to roll up the enemy's flanks, blasting with every weapon and crushing the enemy beneath their tracks.

  In mid-October, a month after arriving at a staging area at Long Binh, a  few kilometers northeast of Saigon, the regiment issued its first major operational  order. The Blackhorse was to establish a regimental base camp on more than  a square mile of ground along Interprovincial Highway 2, twelve kilometers  south of the provincial capital of Xuan Loc. (See Map 1)


Armored cavalry assault vehicle.


Even as the tanks and ACAV's entered and cleared the site for the base, leaflets were dropped from helicopters onto nearby hamlets to alert villagers that the Blackhorse soldiers had come to stay. As the days passed, convoy after convoy rumbled through Xuan Loc on National Highway 1, then south on Highway 2 and on to the developing base camp. Always escorted by ACAV's, the convoys kept this stretch of National 1 open to a degree unknown since the beginning of the Viet Cong insurgency.

  While work on the base camp continued, two of the 11th Cavalry's three squadrons  were called far afield to assist in other operations. Since the remaining  squadron was engaged in searching and clearing surrounding jungles, only company-size units remained to provide perimeter security for the camp. By mid-November the developing base, fat with military supplies of all kinds, had become an inviting target, lightly defended and still only lightly fortified.

Intelligence reports in early November indicated that the 5th Viet Cong Division, which had been fighting to dominate the Xuan Loc area and close Highway 1, was assuming the offensive. When word came that enemy troops had left their usual hideout south of


Xuan Loc and were headed in the direction of the base camp, the 11th Cavalry's commander, Col. William W. Cobb, asked for the return of one of his detached squadrons. The request granted, the 1st Squadron began arriving at Long Binh in late afternoon of 20 November on the first leg of a move to the base camp.

Although the howitzer battery and Troop A moved on immediately to augment defenders of the base camp, the rest of the squadron paused overnight at Long Binh to "top off" with fuel and "pull maintenance." These men would leave early the next morning, after a convoy taking along staff sections, clerks, cooks, medics, and other support troops from regimental headquarters had arrived at the camp.

As night fell on 20 November, the two forces that would fight the
next day drew closer together. The last vehicles of the 1st Squadron closed at Long Binh in a heavy rain, their crews tired from a 12-hour road march at the end of almost two weeks in the field. Rain continued to pour while the support troops loaded supplies and equipment into the trucks that were to join the convoy the next morning. At the same time, the monsoon that drenched the troopers of the Blackhorse pelted the two battalions and headquarters of the 5th Viet Cong Division's 274th Regiment-the battle-hardened Dong Nai Regiment-as they moved into ambush positions along National Highway 1, west of Xuan Loc.

Midway between the provincial capitals of Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc, Highway 1 dropped sharply to a stream bed and then rose to a gently rolling plateau. A dirt road running north and south intersected National Highway 1 at this point. Low hills rising only 10 to 20 meters above the road level began about 180 meters from the highway on both sides.

On the north side of the highway, grass high enough to hide a standing man covered the ground. Rising like an island in the sea of grass was an expanse of jungle 1,000 meters square, beginning at the north-south dirt road and running parallel to Highway 1,300 meters north of the edge of the highway.

Along the south side of the highway a wall of jungle had grown up around the trees of an old rubber plantation stretching from the province boundary east for 1,000 meters and ending abruptly at a banana grove. The banana grove lined the south side of the highway for 300 meters before it gave way to an open area ending at the hamlet of Ap Hung Nghia.

Because the jungle and banana grove offered concealment for approach and withdrawal, the commander of the Viet Cong 274th Regiment placed his main force of over a thousand men on the south


side of the road, camouflaged and ready to fire automatic weapons and antitank rockets point-blank onto the highway. The ambush extended from just inside the west end of the jungle to the outskirts of Ap Hung Nghia, a distance of 1,500 meters. To handle any U.S. troops who might dismount and take refuge on the north side of the road, the Viet Cong commander deployed infantrymen alone or in groups of two or three across the highway in the tall grass. (Map 5)

In the classic manner of Viet Cong ambush forces, heavy weapons marked both ends of the killing zone. A 75-mm. recoilless rifle, positioned less than fifteen feet from the road, marked the beginning of the killing zone, just twenty feet inside the west end of the jungle close by the banana grove. A second 75-mm. recoilless rifle dominated the road in the eastern half of the killing zone from the forward slope of a slight hill just to the east of the banana grove. A 57-mm. recoilless rifle farther up the hill, three hundred meters to the east, and an 82-mm. mortar deep in the jungle were to provide supporting fire. Heavy machine guns hidden in huts scattered through the killing zone were to engage American helicopters and jets. Regimental headquarters operated on the crest of a hill five hundred meters west of Ap Hung Nghia, overlooking the entire section of road in the killing zone.

Once the ambush was executed the 274th Regiment was to withdraw to railroad tracks parallel to and a thousand meters south of the highway, then along a trail leading due south under a heavy canopy of jungle. Bunkers along the trail for a distance of two kilometers would provide cover against air attack, while bunkers at the beginning of the trail and a hundred meters south of the railroad tracks would provide defensive positions for a delaying force.

Through the wet chilly night of 20 November, men of the Dong Nai Regiment waited in their concealed positions.

At Long Binh loading of the convoy continued well into the night. Tents housing staff sections were struck, folded, and loaded dripping wet into the waiting trucks. Some drivers then put their trucks in line along the road near the convoy's starting point in the hope of being near the front of the column where they could avoid at least some of the grime and exhaust fumes that would plague others farther to the rear.

By 0600 most of the trucks waited at the starting point, though stragglers and latecomers in a variety of vehicles continued to join the column until almost 0700, the announced starting time. Yet 0700 passed and still the escorts had not arrived; one of those inexplicable waits that always seem to haunt units on the move now set in. After a while support units and staff sections that had assumed they could not be ready to leave with the morning convoy saw their


MAP 5 - Enemy Ambush



Hoisting CONEX container for convoy loading.


chance. They quickly finished loading and lined up their vehicles at the rear of the column. A long column grew longer. Five-ton trucks carrying document-filled CONEX containers (steel cargo transporters), S and P's (stake and platform trucks) loaded with small prefabricated buildings and supplies, jeeps and their trailers, 34-ton trucks, 214-ton "deuce and a half's," and even two large ordnance vans loaded with post exchange supplies and the regiment's finance records, a most precious cargo, joined the column.

Word filtered down through the convoy that the column would roll at eight, then at nine. But not until 0840 was the convoy escort commander designated-1st Lt. Neil L. Keltner, commanding the 1st Platoon, Troop C, of the 1st Squadron.

Keltner quickly gathered the vehicles for his escort, four ACAV's from his platoon and four from Troop C's 2d Platoon. He found, sandwiched among the trucks, an ACAV from Troop A that had missed that troop's move the preceding day. This ACAV-numbered A34-he quickly integrated into his escort force.

He might need this additional armor and more, Keltner mused, for with the help of Capt. Robert Smith, the forward air controller who was circling above the ever-lengthening line, Keltner estimated


that the convoy now consisted of over eighty vehicles "of about every size and shape in the U.S. Army inventory."

For the march, Keltner placed his ACAV's in pairs: a pair at the head and rear of the column and at two points equidistant within the column. He added his own vehicle to the two-one of them was the A34 from Troop A-that were some twenty trucks behind the head of the convoy.

At 0920 Lieutenant Keltner gave the signal: "Move out."

Rising from the grass along the road where they had been dozing, truckers and their passengers donned flak jackets, put on helmets, picked up their weapons, and mounted their vehicles. Engines came to life all along the line and the convoy began to roll. After traveling less than a mile, the lead vehicle turned onto National Highway 1 and passed through the village of Ho Nai. The men aboard could not know it but at this point a Viet Cong observation post somewhere in Ho Nai flashed word to the 274th Regiment that the convoy was on the way.

Haphazardly formed, lacking unit integrity, the convoy was by its very nature difficult to protect. Great gaps within the column began to develop early as lightly laden vehicles pulled far ahead of heavily loaded trucks. Accordion-like, the line stretched.

The convoy had been on the road less than forty-five minutes when a noncommissioned officer, M. Sgt. Joseph Smolenski, at the 11th Cavalry's tactical operational center, received an intelligence message in the form of a code word and a location. Instantly recognizing the code word as one the intelligence staff had been told to watch for, he rushed the communication to Maj. Grail L. Brookshire, the regimental S-2. Brookshire realized at once that the message indicated the presence of the headquarters of the 274th Regiment, the best combat unit in the 5th Viet Cong Division. As revealed by the co-ordinates, the enemy location was fifteen kilometers west of Xuan Loc, along Highway I and near Ap Hung Nghia. Confirming that a convoy was on the road, the S-2 saw the position of the enemy troops for what it was-an ambush.

Only a minute passed after receipt of the message before the S-2 radioed a warning of the enemy location to the 1st Squadron's operations center at Long Binh. At the same time the assistant S-3, Capt. Harlen E. Gray, ordered the Blackhorse light fire team (two armed Huey helicopters) aloft to cover the convoy. With a "Witco" received from Blackhorse flight operations on the order, Captain Gray alerted the 1st Squadron on the regimental command net, re-enforcing the warning of a minute before on the intelligence net and using the 2d Squadron, located five kilometers nearer to the 1st Squadron's operations center, as a relay station.


While commanders and duty officers at the two headquarters frantically worked to protect the convoy, the object of their concern continued to rumble eastward toward Xuan Loc, with the forward air controller circling overhead. No warning had yet been sent to the convoy commander. Lieutenant Keltner's major concern remained the accordion-like motion of the convoy and the large gaps that constantly appeared in the column.

Dodging 55-gallon drums placed in the road to slow traffic, the lead trucks rolled through a Vietnamese National Police checkpoint midway between Bien Hoa and Xuan Loc, the men on the trucks waving to the policemen. Lieutenant Keltner's ACAV in the second group of escort vehicles was within a thousand meters of the ambush site when his radio crackled with a message from 1st Squadron headquarters.

"Suspected enemy activity at coordinates 289098."

It was a routine enough message, delivered in a matter-of-fact manner. The lieutenant asked for more information. Squadron headquarters had none. Keltner had received similar messages before and the enemy each time had failed to show up. He was not particularly worried about this one, but he immediately radioed the air controller to verify the location of the front of the column and the relation of the lead vehicles to the suspected enemy position.

Two controllers were by this time circling overhead; since Captain Smith's fuel was low, Maj. Mario J. Stefanelli had arrived to relieve him. Both officers already were alert to the possible enemy activity, for less than two minutes before Keltner received the message from his squadron Captain Smith had received a coded message from the 11th Cavalry operations center with the same information. As Smith finished copying the message, Major Stefanelli assumed air controller responsibility for the convoy, allowing Smith to decode the co-ordinates undisturbed. Smith still had enough fuel to stay overhead a few minutes longer. He was just finishing his decoding when Keltner's call reached Major Stefanelli.

The head of the convoy, Stefanelli answered, had just passed the suspected enemy location.

Keltner quickly radioed his ACAV's to warn them of the imminent danger. All but the lead ACAV-C22-answered. A few seconds later C22 reported receiving fire from small arms and automatic weapons and asked permission to return fire. Even as Keltner gave the permission, his own vehicle came alongside the edge of the banana grove that lay south of the highway, and Keltner informed squadron headquarters that the convoy was under fire. It was 1025.

Reacting to earlier counterambush training, Lieutenant Keltner decided to run the column through the small arms fire. From the


report of the lead ACAV he believed that the fire was but a harassing tactic, or at the most that it came from only a platoon or a company of Viet Cong. In any case, with eighty vehicles to protect and only nine ACAV's to do the job, Keltner felt he had little choice. (Map 6)

Still on the move, he ordered his own crew to spray the banana trees south of the road with fire. Just as his machine guns opened up, a mortar round burst close behind his ACAV and immediately in front of the next-A34 but did no damage. While all the ACAV's of the first two groups poured machine gun fire into both sides of the road, nearly half of the convoy, including Keltner's own vehicle, passed safely through and beyond the killing zone. But the full force of the enemy's ambush still had not been brought to bear. Even though Keltner had received the warning too late to stop the column short of the killing zone, he had been able to alert his escorts almost at the exact moment the Viet Cong moved to spring their ambush. The Dong Nai Regiment had been denied the benefit of total surprise.

At Long Binh Lt. Col. Martin D. Howell, the squadron commander, heard Keltner report small arms fire. Like the lieutenant, he believed it to be harassing fire but nevertheless dispatched the remainder of Troop C to the scene. With Charley Troop roaring out of the staging area and the light fire team helicopters, alerted earlier, rushing to the scene, help was on the way even before the battle reached a peak.

Although most of the front half of the convoy had passed out of danger, eight trucks had fallen behind because the first of the eight was carrying a heavy load. As these last trucks and the section led by the next two ACAV's-C18 and C13-entered the killing zone, the ACAV's fired first into the edge of the jungle and, as they kept moving, into the banana grove. The Viet Cong answered with small arms and automatic weapons from both sides of the road. The exchange of fire at a range of less than twenty meters became a deafening roar. To many of the men in the following trucks, this fusillade was the first warning of an ambush, for vehicle noises had drowned out the earlier exchange. The trucks not yet under fire began to slow down, their drivers displaying the uncertainty they felt about what lay ahead.

Yet the convoy kept moving and the road ahead remained clear. The exchange of fire grew in volume as those trucks with "shotgun" riders began to engage the ambushers on the right (south) side of the road. The crash of exploding grenades added to the noise of battle. Then a round from a recoilless rifle struck C18 on the edge of the loading ramp but failed to stop the ACAV.


MAP 6 - 1st Squadron Maneuvers



Burning truck with trailer, opposite banana grove.


As the firelight continued at close range, the trucks forming the rear of the column, not yet in the killing zone, began to pull over to the side of the road. Those immediately behind C18 and C13, already under fire, stopped and the men aboard raced for cover in ditches on either side of the road. The only vehicles moving at that point were the last eight trucks from the first half of the column and ACAV's C13 and C18.

Hardly had C18 escaped one round from a recoilless rifle when another burned a hole in its right side, starting a fire. This hit wounded the ACAV commander, but the crew continued to fire the .50-caliber machine gun and the M60's into the enemy position south of the road.

Now another recoilless rifle round struck the heavily loaded lead truck whose slowness had opened a gap in the truck column. The gasoline tank exploded, instantly killing the two men in the cab. The truck lurched to the left into the ditch on the north side of the road, its trailer still on the pavement, partially blocking the highway. A column of thick black smoke shot into the morning sky. While the


crew of C18 continued to fire, the wounded commander radioed his situation to Keltner. After passing the word on to squadron headquarters, Lieutenant Keltner turned around to enter the fight again, but before he could return C18 burst into flames. On order of the critically wounded sergeant, all the crew except the driver evacuated the vehicle, dragging the sergeant out of the commander's hatch and carrying him into the high grass on the north side of the highway. Only light fire had come from that direction, and it seemed the safest place to go. The driver of the burning C18 finally got it started again and headed down the road through a hail of small arms and antitank rocket fire, hoping to distract the enemy's attention and allow the other crewmen to make good their escape. He succeeded, but four hundred meters down the road met his death when one of the thousands of small arms rounds fired at the moving ACAV found its mark.

Even as C18 fought to the death, the troopers in C13, a few meters farther forward along the road, moved to counter small arms fire and grenades raining on the three remaining trucks to their front. Racing forward, the driver interposed his ACAV between the trucks and heavy enemy fire coming from the banana grove on the right side of the road, but not before a recoilless rifle sent a second truck up in flames.

As C13 came abreast of the burning truck, another round exploded against its right gun shield, destroying the M60 machine gun, killing the gunner, and wounding everybody but the driver. A recoilless rifle round struck the engine compartment and C13 began to burn. Although the driver himself was now wounded, he continued to move forward, deeper into the killing zone. Veering past the truck trailer that partially blocked the road, he went fifteen hundred meters past the end of the ambush. Only then did the crew abandon the burning vehicle. Moments later C13 exploded.

After C13 had rolled down the highway spewing smoke, there was a sudden silence. For the first time the men who had taken cover in the ditches alongside the road could hear jet fighters circling overhead and hear as well as see a flight of helicopters turning to make firing runs. The silence on the ground lasted perhaps ten seconds before it was broken by the roar of another round from a recoilless rifle aimed at one of the trucks that the trailer of the lead truck had blocked. So close was the range that the crash of the impacting round mingled with the roar of the backblast. Then came another blast, and a third, and a fourth, as the Viet Cong gunners methodically destroyed two more trucks.

The men replied with fierce counterfire. Sharply conscious that no ACAV's remained in the killing zone to provide fire support, they


Aerial view of convoy ambush after first air strike.


fully expected the Viet Cong to emerge from their ambush and overrun the ditch. But the enemy was feeling the air attacks. The column of smoke from the burning trucks was a beacon upon which air support was converging.

A minute after the first truck was hit, the two forward air controllers attacked with the only weapons they had-white phosphorus marking rockets. Flying their slow observation craft through heavy small arms fire, they searched for the Viet Cong. Seeing puffs of smoke from weapons firing in the banana grove, Major Stefanelli placed his first rocket there. His ship hit by ground fire but still operational, Captain Smith aimed his rocket into the jungle opposite the burning trucks. As Stefanelli fired a second rocket into the banana trees, Smith aimed his at a group of twenty Viet Cong who had risen and were running south. Even as the first trucks were hit and the first rockets struck, the ambush was breaking up.

When the two light aircraft pulled out of their diving attacks, the only Huey gunship operational with the 1st Squadron that day moved in. From having monitored the 1st Platoon's radio frequency, the pilot, Capt. Turner L. Nelson, knew almost as much about what was


happening on the ground as did Lieutenant Keltner. He made two passes, firing machine guns and a total of eight rockets into the ambush positions. So heavy did the ground fire directed at the lone helicopter seem to the truckers in the ditches that few believed the ship could escape; somehow the helicopter emerged unscathed.

Close behind Captain Nelson's strikes came the regimental light fire team, alerted only minutes before. Diverted from an administrative mission in mid-flight, the team commander, Capt. George E. Kinback, approached the scene from the south. The second helicopter, piloted by Capt. Frank Y. Sasaki, had taken off from the Blackhorse helipad at the base camp and approached from the east. About three kilometers south of Highway 1, Kinback observed Sasaki's ship and directed him toward the column of smoke rising from the first of the stricken trucks.

As the two ships lined up for their first firing run, Kinback tried unsuccessfully to get instructions from Keltner by radio. Captain Nelson, circling north of the road, was unable to contact either Kinback or Sasaki. Yet lack of communications imposed little delay, for not only could Kinback and Sasaki spot the burning trucks, but heavy fire from the Viet Cong positions gave away the enemy's location.

On the first pass the two Hueys loosed machine gun fire and six pairs of rockets at the Viet Cong. On the second pass they had help from Captain Nelson, who was at last in communication with the team and fell in behind the regimental gunships. On this run the three Hueys poured continuous machine gun fire and nine pairs of rockets into the enemy positions. On a third and then a fourth firing run they expended the remaining six pairs of rockets and continued to hit the foe with machine gun fire.

While the fourth helicopter firing run was in progress, the regimental operations center radioed an order for the team to move north of the road to make way for a strike by Air Force jets. The arrival of jets in a battle only eight minutes old brought pure joy to those men of the convoy who were still crouching in the ditches. Three F-100's now joined the fight. The men on the ground had no way of knowing-nor would they have really cared-that they got this support less by calculated design than by a lucky break. An air controller on a routine administrative flight had seen the smoke of the first burning truck. Knowing that a preplanned air strike for a nearby South Vietnamese Army division was minutes away, he called the Blackhorse operations center and offered to turn the fighters over to the 11th Cavalry. The Blackhorse air liaison officer on duty at the center, Air Force Maj. Charles F. Post, had jumped at this unexpected windfall and informed Major Stefanelli. But even


before the radio alerted them, the jets were roaring over the ambush, guided by the column of smoke. Reaching the fighter pilots on a universal emergency frequency, Stefanelli turned them over to Captain Smith, who had just enough fuel left to put the strike in before heading for home base.

The air liaison officer at the Blackhorse operations center directed the aircraft to strike fifty meters inside the jungle, south of the highway. Smith added a 25-meter safety margin, rolled his aircraft over, dived, and fired one of his two remaining marking rockets. Plunging through intense fire from the enemy, the jets dropped six high-drag 500-pound bombs at the western edge of the ambush. Smith then marked for a napalm run, and the jets dropped six tanks on more enemy troops running south; they followed with a strafing run of 20-mm. cannon fire on Viet Cong fleeing along a trail in the jungle south of the road.

As the air strike took place, Lieutenant Keltner, on the ground, was directing the commander of his lead ACAV to take that part of the convoy that had escaped the ambush on to the base camp. He himself turned his vehicle along with C10 back toward the burning trucks. Coming first upon C13, burning on the road, Keltner directed C10 to remain with the wounded crewmen who had taken cover in the high grass on the north side of the road until a helicopter could arrive. Then C10 would rejoin Keltner.

Alone, Keltner's ACAV pressed on at top speed toward the burning trucks, the lieutenant in the process radioing for a medical evacuation helicopter for the wounded. A helicopter from the Blackhorse base camp, already overhead and monitoring Keltner's frequency, responded immediately.

As Keltner's ACAV sped along the highway, ten Viet Cong suddenly darted across its path. Both the Viet Cong and the gunners in the ACAV opened fire. Five of the enemy fell; the others made it into the scrub jungle south of the road. Keltner's left machine gunner, hit in the head, died instantly. During this brief engagement a 57-mm. recoilless rifle fired five rounds at the lieutenant's vehicle. Despite the speed of C16-thirty-five to forty-five miles an hour-the last round hit its left side. Although the antitank round failed to stop Keltner's ACAV, the lieutenant and his right machine gunner were wounded by fragments and the intercom and radios were knocked out, leaving Keltner only a portable radio lashed to the outside of the commander's hatch. Intended for maintaining contact with the air controller, this radio provided the only remaining link between Keltner and his platoon.

When he reached the abandoned and still-smoldering hulk of C18, Keltner could detect no sign of the crew. He stopped long


enough to remove the vehicle's machine guns, then drove on till he reached the burning trucks. From the ditch along the south side of the road, the men from the trucks were still exchanging small arms fire with the Viet Cong. Five to six minutes had passed since C13 and C18 had been knocked out. Calling for a second medical helicopter for the wounded truck drivers, Keltner rode down the line of trucks to make certain he had missed no casualties. Finding none, he continued to the rear of the convoy, where he left his dead gunner and exchanged his ACAV for C23 which had an operable intercom and radios.

Mounted in C23 and accompanied by C16, Keltner returned to the burning trucks, his gunners firing from the moving vehicle into the jungle. When the men from the trucks told him that most of the enemy fire was now coming from the north, Keltner radioed for an air strike against the edge of the jungle lying north of the highway. This call coincided with the end of the strafing run by the F-100's, but in response to a request by the 1st Squadron operations center, initiated only minutes after the ambush was sprung, two F-5 Freedom Fighters had arrived over the ambush site. They swept in on the target, hitting the west edge of the patch of jungle with cluster bomb units that sounded like rolling thunder to the troops along the edge of the road.

Observing the strike while cruising along the road with his machine gunners firing into the jungle on either side, Keltner called in an adjustment to Colonel Howell, who had arrived overhead in a Huey, and on the second pass the aircraft dropped napalm tanks closer to the south edge of the jungle. This did the job; no further enemy fire came from the north.

After another quick but unsuccessful search for the crew of C18, Keltner returned again to the burning trucks even as the first of the relief forces began to arrive.

When Colonel Howell had reacted to Lieutenant Keltner's first report of small arms fire by ordering Troop C to the scene, he had some qualms that he might be sending troops to deal with only a few snipers. But when Keltner's report of burning trucks came a few moments later, Howell ordered both Troop B and Company D (a tank company) to follow Troop C. As the squadron moved, Colonel Howell mounted his waiting helicopter. As soon as he gained altitude he could see the column of smoke from the trucks and the bombs of the air strike rising from the killing zone.

Guiding on the smoke, the colonel was soon over the ambush site, talking to Keltner, adjusting the second air strike, and formulating his battle plan. Troop C would go south of the highway and then east along the railroad tracks, cutting off the most obvious route of re-


treat, while Troop B would swing north in an arc connecting each end of the ambush. The tanks of Company D would push along the highway to force the enemy into the encircling troops.

As the relief force drew closer to the ambush, Colonel Howell and Lieutenant Keltner adjusted the second air strike to be brought against the enemy positions. Minutes later, Troop B swung north through the strike zone, Troop C turned south, and Company D's tanks swept into the grass north of the highway. It was 1100, only thirty-five minutes since the ambush had struck, and the squadron already had traveled over twenty kilometers.

While the squadron maneuvered, Keltner searched again for C18's missing crew. This time he found the men in the grass north of the road protecting their critically wounded commander. Within a few minutes a helicopter had evacuated them.

Twenty minutes after the relief force arrived, the southern pincer made contact with the enemy as 1st Lt. James V. Stewart fired at what proved to be the rear guard of the 274th Regiment, fleeing south across the railroad tracks. Stewart's crew killed two Viet Cong and captured a Chinese-made 57-mm. recoilless rifle. For the rest of the day the tanks and ACAV's continued closing the circle around the ambush site. Cruising through the grass adjacent to the highway, Company D flushed out and killed, one at a time, five Viet Cong. Troop A, released from the base camp, joined the squadron and killed one enemy soldier, and Troop B captured another. By 1600 it became clear that, even with the help of a South Vietnamese infantry battalion that made a cursory search of the area, the squadron had failed to trap the main force of the enemy.

Colonel Howell then directed the squadron to coil around the ambush site for the night.

After encountering a few enemy patrols that night, the squadron searched the battlefield the next day and for two days following. The men found bunkers along the escape route and a total of thirty enemy dead. The convoy and its escort had lost seven men killed and eight wounded, four trucks and two ACAV's destroyed.

From the beginning, the battle had not gone well for the Viet Cong. The ambush, designed to open with the crash of recoilless rifle fire and grenades, had begun with the sputter of small arms fire while half the convoy sped through unscathed. Alerted, most of the men had entered the killing zone firing into the jungle on both sides of the road. Not until the middle of the convoy reached the killing zone had the enemy fired heavy weapons. Almost from the first, Blackhorse helicopters had struck from the sky. The ACAV-new to the men of the Dong Nai Regiment, who had never seen a vehicle quite like it-poured more fire into the Viet Cong ranks than any


other "personnel carrier" they had met. The clincher had come when the Ho Nai outpost flashed word that the relief force was on the way just minutes after the ambush struck; the regimental commander, whose troops were already beginning to flee south as jets came in to bomb, was obliged to order withdrawal when the fight had scarcely begun.

Late in the afternoon of 24 November-Thanksgiving Day- the squadron returned to the Blackhorse base camp.

National Highway 1 remained open.

page created 7 May 2001

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