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They Were All Heroes: A Firsthand Account of Surviving an Attack in Vietnam

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By Jeff Ohlbaum

Jeff Ohlbaum in Vietnam in 1969.

It started to rain heavily the night of June 19, 1969, at I Corp Thau Thien Province, 17 miles south of Hue and 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Firebase Tomahawk.

Visibility was two feet at best. You learned in Vietnam that weather and stealth are potent combat components in warfare.

Charlie Battery, from the 2nd Battalion 138th Field Artillery, had a stellar reputation of inflicting heavy losses on the North Vietnamese as they crossed the DMZ along the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. Charlie Battery was a well-trained National Guard unit from Bardstown, Ky. They had trained together stateside for years and socialized with each other at home. I was infused into their unit to help them.

The 155 howitzers at Firebase Tomahawk, 14,500 meters max range, had a primary target: Ruong Ruong Valley, the lower A Shau Valley, a stronghold for the North Vietnamese.

Mountains and valleys covered by an umbrella of trees in full foliage created a perfect landscape to harbor the hardcore among the enemy. They knew the terrain and fought best in darkness. Their mode of transport for weapons were usually elephants; you cannot carry mortars and rocket launchers. Sadly, our 155s had to target the transporter as well as the enemy.

Firebase Tomahawk was in a good location for the artillery pieces to create havoc for the enemy, but not viewed too favorably by the soldiers holding and defending it.

The terrain and sloping hills outside our 360-degree perimeter would be difficult to defend. We later found out our firebase had been defoliated with Agent Orange, which was common in Vietnam.

In addition to the artillery battery, we had an 18-man platoon from Charlie Company 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division sharing perimeter support with us. Our bunkers were heavily sandbagged with mounted M-50 and M-60 machine guns facing outside the perimeter and manned every night with two people inside.

After midnight on June 20, it was still raining hard. I was on perimeter duty that night facing north. The radio telephone rang. We were alerted the artillery firebases to the north and south were under mortar attack. We knew the drill; our base was put on full alert. Those who were off-shift were awakened. The M-16s were loaded, never to the max to prevent jamming, usually 19 rounds.

The playbook was now in enemy hands, no full moon, no visibility, our artillery support bases that had pre-fired grid coordinates to drop artillery rounds outside our perimeter to protect us were under mortar attack. S—, we must be next!

There were incoming mortars at 1:30 a.m. The noise is deafening and the dirt beneath me vibrates. It was too dark to see the enemy flash tubes. I picked up the phone to get info but the phone is dead. A mortar or rocket may have cut the phone wire or was the Fire Direction Center Command Post hit? Our M-50s and M-60s go hot. We can only see the tracers. It is pitch black outside.  

At 1:55 a.m., our firebase lights up, a self-illuminating round fired by one of our artillery guns. That means the enemy has breached our perimeter under their own mortar fire and are in our backyard, Firebase Tomahawk. Since they did not penetrate the perimeter from the north side, they were behind us! We were unable to turn around based on our posture in the narrow bunker post and all weapons were hot facing north.  

We ignited the pre-set claymores outside our perimeter. There’s another deafening sound with metal and debris flying toward us. The enemy had rotated the claymores to fire back at us.

We also had Foo Gas, a mixture of explosives and napalm in 50-gallon drums outside the perimeter as a layer of protection, which was detonated to disperse an explosive fireball over a large area.

We then heard large explosions on the firebase, not mortars. It was satchel charges and hand-held rocket-propelled grenades used by the North Vietnamese to destroy the six deployed artillery guns and anyone around it. It must have been a sapper company specifically trained to destroy and kill with immediacy. For them it is an honor to die in combat.

A flare gun fired a colored round into the air at about 3 a.m. The enemy was retreating. Spooky, aka Puff the Magic Dragon (an AC-47), arrived overhead firing their four Gatling guns, each with multiple barrels as the enemy withdrew. It was immense firepower. Huge trees were destroyed and large rock formations turned into pebbles. The enemy had nowhere to hide.

The medivacs supported by gunships landed to remove the injured and dead. The less seriously wounded were flown to Phu Bai and the more serious to Da Nang; those with severe burns were airlifted from Da Nang to a naval hospital ship in the South China Sea. The damage and human toll were indescribable.

We later find out through one surviving prisoner that 150 North Vietnamese sappers had amassed outside our perimeter, 75 of them wearing only a loin cloth with satchel charges strapped to their bodies and some with two cigarette filters taped to their chest. (If gas is used it works like a gas mask when inserted into the nostrils.) They were high on drugs as they snaked through the concertina wire to avoid the trip flares. The remaining 75 sappers outside the perimeter waited for a specific-colored flare, which would have doubled the enemy force. They determined enough damage had occurred. We avoided being potentially overrun.

Three of the six howitzers were destroyed, one was disabled, the ammunition storage area eliminated, nine perimeter bunkers were destroyed, the makeshift mess hall, maintenance and ammo carriers gone. Tomahawk was in shambles and everyone was dazed seeking to locate and help their fellow brother.

Nine artillerymen were killed. The 101st Airborne lost four men. Over 50 were wounded. They were young, fearless and served with honor. They had wives, kids, girlfriends, parents and grandparents.

Twenty-three of the sapper bodies were counted.

The southern and western perimeter bunker positions had been penetrated by the enemy. Fate had me facing north that night.

Those who proudly served were all heroes at Firebase Tomahawk, but some are not here to tell their story. This Memorial Day, 53 years later, I am proud to be their spokesperson.    

After his military service, Jeff Ohlbaum has worked in the publishing industry for over 50 years and is currently an advertising representative with Examiner Media.

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