Lieutenant Tinh moved his Third Company of militia out of the perimeter at Tan Phu in the early morning darkness, and set a course for Le Coeur. Three hours earlier the other two companies had left, planning to skirt the hamlet and set up positions on the other side. When Third Company hit the village, everyone expected the small enemy force there to hightail it for the safety of the U Minh Forest.
As had been expected, when the strike force reached Le Coeur, the enemy abandoned their command post. "We had a good plan and a good bunch of troops and when we hit the hamlet on the edge of the U Minh, the Viet Cong bugged and ran just as we thought they would," Lieutenant Rowe wrote years later. Lieutenant Tinh and his militia entered the hamlet without resistance, finding it deserted. For a time they swept the area for intelligence. Lieutenant Rowe picked up a spent Mossin-Magant cartridge. Not until later did it dawn on him that the presence of the Russian K-44 shell casing indicated they were facing more than a small platoon of irregular Viet Cong.
Pleased with the mission's success, the American advisors directed the companies to return to Tan Phu. "There was not doubt we had surprised them," Rowe continued in his book Five Years to Freedom. "We caught them completely unaware, but they reacted in just the opposite way than we had anticipated. Instead of falling into our ambush, they set us up for theirs." Instead of retreating into the U Minh Forest, the Main Force 306th Viet Cong Battalion, perhaps as many as 1,000 enemy soldiers, retreated in the opposite direction to lay in wait.
While the ambushers of First Company returned by a route similar to the one they had taken to get to their post between the forest and Le Coeur, the 120-man CIDG company with the three American Green Berets followed the canals back by a different route. By 10 A.M. they had moved about two kilometers down one of the myriad of canals when they saw a line of black-clad Viet Cong trying to cut them off. They had caught up to the retreating enemy forces from Le Coeur, but the enemy was no longer retreating.
From a range of 900 meters, the Viet Cong began firing their automatic weapons at the South Vietnamese soldiers and their American advisors. At that range this was no great threat, for the allied force was too distant for accuracy. What the enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire did do, was pin down the allied force while they set up mortars. At first, the mortars that peppered the landscape like hail, fell harmlessly beyond the allied force, as the enemy gunners had not yet established their range.
Suddenly a group of CIDG broke and ran for the shelter of a bank near a rice paddy. They enemy had fixed the range to that point, and "There was almost dead silence and I could almost picture it in my mind...watching the VC range those (mortar) tubes," Rowe recalled. "And then it came. There was one flight of about 12 rounds and it was almost a complete wipeout of our people who had run for that bank."
The Americans and their CIDG force quickly pulled back into a tree line and set up a perimeter.
And then the VC came, hitting the allied force on three sides.
"I never saw so many VC in my life," Lieutenant Rowe wrote. "They must have had at least three platoons coming across that paddy and they just kept coming. As long as our strikers had ammunition, it was like a turkey shoot.
"Then they began to work us over with 57s and 81 mortars and we were taking casualties pretty heavily. And out there beckoning to us was that one big open rice paddy that wasn't being defended and I thought 'what the hell, let's use it.' But then we realized it was what they wanted us to do. They had it ambushed at two tree lines on the other side...a classical three-sided attack with an ambushed escape route.
"We dug in and tried to stop them from overrunning us.
"At this moment two or our (allied) planes passed nearby, a T-28 Caribou, and we thought we had it made but the pilot of the T-28, who had more VC in his sights at that moment than he had ever seen before, radioed that he couldn't engage without authorization from Saigon...and he flew on.
"We had about 120 men and we were dealing out heavy casualties to the Cong, doing the job we were in Vietnam to do, and we weren't all that disturbed at first. But then we began to run low on ammunition and we realized just how many damned VC were out there.
"I had an M1...and I was doing good work with it across those paddies. I went through two bandoliers of ammo and you had to hit something every time you fired in that mass of bodies coming at us. We had Buddhist Cambods with tattoos on their chest that were supposed to protect them from harm and those guys were walking around in our perimeter like it was pay day in Tan Phu. Rounds were coming in all over the place, mortars, 57s, small arms fire, and these guys were walking around checking ammo, making status reports, laughing, and joking and stacking up Charlie (enemy bodies) like cord wood 10 to 15 meters in front of our positions.
"They were bloodying Charly's (sic) nose, something awful. They had never been in a shootout like this before...and they were winning, and it felt good. And in the back of all our minds was the thought that First Company, which had preceded us back to camp after we had hit the hamlet, would be back to give us a hand."
From: Five Years to Freedom
by James N. Rowe
As the medic, SFC Pitzer was busy tending to the wounded as enemy fire continued to rain on their position, unabated despite the heavy losses incurred by the Viet Cong. For six hours the CIDG force and the three Green Berets fought off wave after wave of enemy, confident that if they could hold on long enough, First Company would arrive to reinforce them.
Then came the word that First Company had also been ambushed and wouldn't be coming. "We got cold lumps in our stomachs," Lieutenant Rowe recalled. "We knew that the game was up. We weren't going anywhere."
Captain Versace and Lieutenant Rowe, realizing that the day was nearly spent but that the flood of enemy soldiers was not, told their CIDG forces to withdraw while the three Americans covered them. The order didn't have to be issued twice. What had earlier appeared to be a big victory for the CIDG force, had degenerated into a potential massacre. "Our troops came past us at Mach 3 and accelerating," Rowe remembered.
The Green Berets stayed in their position along the canal to cover the withdrawal, hoping then to leap-frog back to Tan Phu. Suddenly, out of the trees, an enemy assault squad swarmed the canal.
"Dan (Pitzer) caught the first bunch with the M79 (grenade launcher). When the first guy got it in the chest, he all but disappeared and the sight stopped the (enemy) squad cold. They had never seen the M79 before and the shock of the weapon's power gave us time to get out of there.
"I found our guys in a big ditch and everyone had thrown away their weapons and were ready to surrender. One of the NVSF that we called Pee Hole Bandit (Sgt. Trung) was ready to throw himself on a grenade he had ready.
"We got them up and into a cane field, moving them out, pushing them, covering for them...then the sound of a BAR--there isn't another sound like it in the world--came crashing in on us. Rocky went down with three rounds in the leg.
The withdrawal ordered by Versace and Rowe had turned into a disorganized melee, CIDG forces running in all directions in any hope of getting away from there. SFT Pitzer realized that the allied force was now split up, decimated, and that all hope was gone. He dropped his grenade launcher, maps and other gear and buried them in the mud, planning to hit the canal and try and swim out of there. That was when he heard Captain Versace yell that he had been hit. "I hesitated," he recalled years later in an interview for LOOK magazine. "I did not want to be captured, but I could not run off on the Captain. Just as I reached him, something exploded--a mortar round or a concussion grenade--and I was knocked down, shrapnel in my right shoulder.
"I looked up, and there was a VC with an automatic weapon pointed at me."
Nearby, Rocky Versace struggled against the pain of the three BAR rounds in his leg. An enemy grenade exploded nearby and would have caught him full force had not his leg folded beneath him. The blast caught Lieutenant Rowe in the face and chest as he stepped over to aid the Captain.
"I went over backwards," Rowe wrote, "and I thought I was dead. There was just one big ringing noise and I couldn't see and couldn't hear and everything was numb. No pain. Just numbness. I tried to get up and the whole world did a 360 and I went down on my knees to get straight. Rocky put his arms around my neck and I tried to drag him off the trail so we could play dead until they went past us.
"You could hear them screaming and yelling and trailing (sic) like crazy. We broke reeds back across our trail. Rock wanted to charge out with the seven rounds he had left in his carbine and get that many more shots off at the VC. That was all he could think of.
"I showed him that his wounds were pumping like a fire hydrant and that he would bleed to death before he could pull the trigger if he didn't let me get a bandage on him. I got the first compress on his leg and was starting to put the second one on...when all of a sudden the reeds broke open and I heard someone yelling:
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