Garryowen in Glory, the 7th Cavalry Regiment at Ap Bu Nho
By a quirk of fate, “D” 2/7 Cavalry, was given the chance to demonstrate the plausibility of Spinoza’s despair several weeks later. A Montagnard agent reported that the 141st NVA Regiment was temporarily in position just to the west of the Montagnard resettlement village of Ap (village) Bu Nho about 20 kilometers southwest of Song Be. This village, like several others in Phuoc Long province, had been created in the course of earlier years of war and migration throughout Indochina. It was perfectly rectangular, three streets wide and five hundred feet long with the long axis running east-west, with a dirt road extending to the tar two lane road connecting Song Be with the south. The Song Be River passed north-south to the west of the village. There was a roughly circular patch of woods just northwest of the village. The wood was about one kilometer in diameter. The river ran along the west side of the wood. On the eastern side of the wood, there was a large open “field” covered with grass nearly hip high. The field extended along the whole northern side of the village out to the tar road and beyond. The inhabitants were three or four hundred in number, living in tribal style in long houses and other small flimsily built shacks. They had originally lived in the area of Camp Roland in the northeastern corner of PhuocLongProvince, and had moved or been moved to this site during the First Indochina War. They were S’tiengan people. The agent was one of them and lived in Bu Nho.
I drove to Landing Zone “Buttons” with this information to visit the command post of the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, then operating out of the landing zone. In the underground facility, I talked to the S-2 (Intelligence Staff Officer) of the battalion. I had been providing this officer with information for some time. An example had been the information that led to the BDA mission mentioned above. While we two intelligence officers were discussing the report, the lieutenant colonel commanding 2/7 Cav entered the command post. He was new, having arrived in country within the previous month, and having joined the battalion the week before. In his late thirties, blond, and in his new found dignity, he had a “lean and hungry look.” The S-2 introduced me to him, told him how valuable the detachment’s information had been in the past. The Bn. CO seemed to have a hard time understanding who I was. In talking to me he seemed to be more interested in “showing off” for his operations staff who had followed him into the bunker than in listening. The idea of an intelligence officer resident in the province who had brought him information seemed more than he could handle. After a few minutes, he tired of the whole thing, and asked to be shown on the map. After a glance, he asked the S-3, another superior being and soi-disant tactical virtuoso, what “D” Company was doing the next day. The major said that “D” was in LZ “Buttons” resting and refitting. The CO casually said “Well, put’em in there at first light.” His finger indicated the big, grassy clearing in the angle between Bu Nho and the round woods to the west. The S-2 looked at me, opened his mouth and then said nothing.
I thought What the hell! I don’t work for this man.. “Colonel,” I began, “there is at least a battalion of the 141st NVA Regiment in that wood. They are the best troops in the 7th NVA Division, which is the best in their army. They have been in that wood for at least two weeks. They will be ready.” The CO was irritated. “That’s all right, Captain,” he said. “You are really a captain, aren’t you? We’ll take it from here. Most of these reports are untrue. Why, when I was here as an adviser in the Delta, none of the stuff we got from you people was true.” So, the man didn’t believe the report and was just looking for something for “D” Company to do. This was a delicate situation. “I must protest, sir,” I began. “I would be negligent…” “That will be all!” the CO barked. “Good Day!” The sycophants on the staff bristled in the hope that their master would recognize them as the good dogs they were.
I drove back to Song Be and called my higher headquarters to tell them that a disaster was about to occur. The foreseeable reply from 525th MIG in Saigon was that they would not attempt to interfere with the exercise of command by a line officer in command of troops in the field. I then asked for a helicopter to come to Song Be to be at my disposal the next day. This was agreed. The “Huey” showed up early and I was sitting in the thing at 3,000 feet listening to the 1st Cavalry Division when the fire preparation of Ap Bu Nho commenced.
“They will not grow old, as we who are left grow old,
Age will not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the mornings,
We shall remember them..”
A.E. Housman – inscribed in Washington Arch at VMI
First, there was a lot of fire from corps heavy artillery batteries, including the one at Victor 241 airfield. Then, there were Tacair fighter strikes with bombs and rockets, then there was a massive fire preparation by armed helicopters, of which the 1st Cavalry Division had many. The bombs, shells, and rockets searched the round wood and the big, grassy field. While the armed helicopters were still working on the patch of forest, the twenty odd “Huey Slicks”, (transports unarmed except for a machine gun on each side), swooped onto the scene from the east, having picked up “D” Company at LZ “Buttons.” Throughout the preparation, there had not been a shot fired from the area under bombardment. I could hear the Cavalry Division talking about it on the air. Their opinion was that this would be a “cold” LZ, and that the enemy were not present. With mixed feelings, I watched the assault unfold. The landing was in two columns of helicopters, which were perhaps fifty yards apart. There were about ten helicopters in each column. The cavalry troops scrambled out and headed for the round wood.
The 141st NVA Infantry Regiment had held its fire throughout the preparatory bombardment, a remarkable display of fire discipline. Now, as the helicopters lifted in unison, they opened fire in a roaring, ripping demonstration of just how much firepower a well trained and disciplined light infantry force can possess. Four “Slicks” were shot down on the LZ. All four exploded. It was not likely that anyone lived. The fire balls killed a number of “D” Company men nearby. Several more helicopters were badly damaged and departed smoking. The NVA had organized the defense of the wood in such a way that interlocking bands of machine gun fire from log and earth bunkers cris-crossed out in the field. The guns appeared to have been laid so that the fire was about two to three feet above the ground. The inevitable dips in the ground (dead space) were filled with the fires of mortars shooting from positions behind the bunker line. A general in the War Between the States remarked on a similar occasion that “not even a chicken could live under that fire.” It was thus. The NVA were all in the round wood. The bunkers themselves, as later inspected, were solid with two layers of hardwood logs separated by a foot of packed earth and with another layer of earth on top. They had firing embrasures six inches high, were sited for mutual support and were staggered in depth. “D” Company 2/7 Cavalry was “dead meat” out in that field in the bright sunlight. They could not move forward and to move back meant rising which was certain death.
The fighters and armed helicopters returned to repeatedly bomb and rocket the woods. Corps artillery joined in whenever the aircraft left off.. It did not help. 12.7 mm heavy machine guns and RPG-7 teams engaged the aircraft from within the NVA position. The iron grip of the 141st NVA held “D” Company fast. Everyone was pinned flat on the LZ, face to the dirt.
Additional Cavalry troops began to be inserted into the fight. The rest of 2/7 Cav landed to the east of “D” Company, 1/5 Cav landed north of the round wood, and 2/12 Cav landed to the west of the Song Be river, west of the round wood. All these insertions were by helicopter. What they discovered, as they closed on the wood, was that the 141st had organized the position for a 360 degree, all around defense. The fire and bunkers were just as solid on the other sides as on the east. The position was so large and so well put together that it may well have contained the whole 141st Regiment. The reinforcements got nowhere. The only difference between their situations and that of “D” Company was that they were not pinned down at close quarters. All of these units took substantial losses in this fight.
Wounded from “D” Company crawled toward the eastern side of the clearing, toward the earthen “dike” that carried the main north-south road. They could be seen with the naked eye from the air. As some got across the road, Med-evac helicopters (Dustoffs) began landing in the fire shadow of the road to pick them up. The warrant officer flying the 525th MIG “Huey” told me he intended to land to pick up wounded. Altogether, the strange helicopter with the blue boomerang insignia on the tail boom, made four trips from LZ “Buttons” to Ap Bu Nho carrying 2/7 Cav’s wounded. After a while, the floor of the bird was slippery, and everyone in back was busy trying to keep some of them alive long enough to deliver them to the medics. The helicopter took a number of hits.
About four in the afternoon, the CO of 2/7 Cav made a fatal error. He requested a napalm strike on the round wood. December was the height of the dry season, and the wind was blowing steadily from the west. This could be seen by the direction that smoke was drifting across the battlefield. The napalm strike went in, delivered by two F-4s. It may have done some damage to the NVA, but what it did for certain was to light a grass fire that swept toward the east, toward “D” Company. The Company now faced an ancient dilemma. My great-grandfather had spoken of having faced the same problem in the Wilderness in 1864. The choice was to lie prone and burn or stand and be shot. According to the medics, most preferred to be shot. In the course of this process, “D” Company’s commander, a young captain, who happened to be a Citadel man, decided he had had enough. With his pockets full of grenades, he crawled as close as possible to the nearest machine gun bunker, and with half a dozen of his men firing in support he rushed the bunker throwing grenades, jumped down into the position and killed all within with his pistol. With this crack in the enemy position, “D” Company moved forward behind him and by nightfall had broken the outer defense perimeter of the 141st. They held half a dozen bunkers. The sun went down. The fight ended. All night long the Cavalry Division moved forces into the area to finish the 141st the next morning.
“Good! Whenever you find a real bastard, especially a dumb bastard
make sure you stake’em down, through the heart, through the heart!”
LTC (Ret.) Walter P. Lang to his son, June, 1969
“It is not a mercy to tolerate incompetence in officers, think of the poor men..”
Robert E. Lee, thinking of Bristoe Station
In the morning, the enemy had gone, departed, taking their dead and wounded with them. They had slipped out through some gap in the surrounding lines and simply vanished. “D” Company was extracted and mustered at LZ “Buttons” that afternoon. There were 12 men in the ranks. 52 killed and over 70 wounded was the “Butcher’s Bill” at Ap Bu Nho. This may have been the worst single day’s bloodletting in the Seventh Cavalry since the Little Big Horn in 1876. There too, they had been commanded by a fool. At the muster, the company commander, who was unscathed, stood dry eyed before his remnant while strong men wept, among them, me. I asked the battalion commander and the S-3 how they spelled their names and left. I would have happily killed them both with my own hand, and they seemed to know that.
I sent a report of the action disguised as an intelligence report on the performance of the 141st. It went to every echelon of command above 2/7 Cavalry. Under investigation by division headquarters, the lieutenant colonel later claimed that the agent’s report had been a “provocation” intended to lure him into an ambush. The Division commander was not deceived. 525th MIG saw through my subterfuge and I was admonished for responding to the Operations side’s attempt to scapegoat Intelligence for its own failure. This was the first instance in which I saw this syndrome of the leadership of the intelligence community. I continued to see it for the rest of my government career.” from the memoir of W. Patrick Lang