The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
 
   
 

Completing The Circle

 


A brief and moving ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on November 10 brought to full circle the remarkable story of Kham Duc and Ngok Tavak, the men who were left there, and the survivors of one of Vietnam's deadliest but least-known battles.

Members of a Marine Corps artillery unit, overrun at its guns defending a hilltop Laotian border observation and fire base, returned to commemorate the 1968 battle during which outnumbered U.S. Special Forces, Marines, and local mercenaries were overwhelmed by elements of a North Vietnamese division. The defenders fought clear of entrapment by the enemy but were forced to leave then-dead behind.

After a solemn reading of the names of 40 who died there-at least 32 of whom were never recovered-former Marine corporal Tim Brown of Texas turned toward the memorial's panel 58-E and quietly sprinkled earth from Vietnam on the grassy berm which supports the jet-black marble panels.

"We gather here to commemorate the 219th birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Let us offer our prayer for their sacrifice, and for the Vietnam Veterans of America Veterans Initiative, which offers us our greatest hope for achieving the fullest possible accounting of our dead and missing from the Vietnam War," Brown said. The former Marine is co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans Foundation of Texas and has long been active in state and national VVA affairs.

That act fulfilled a 27-year vow Brown made to his dead Marine Corps comrades whose bodies were left behind May 10, 1968, when the tiny forward observation post at Ngok Tavak was overrun by North Vietnamese regulars. Brown and other VVA members were able to return to the site of the action this year as part of a Veterans Initiative team (dubbed "Team Bravo"), and there, gathered earth from the remnants of the old French fort he had tried to defend with other members of a USMC artillery battalion a few months after Tet.

That earth was sprinkled at the head of the panel, which bears many of the names of the men who died there, including most of his own platoon of the 2/13 Marines.

Accompanying Brown, who has made Kham Due and Ngok Tavak research a lifetime mission, were his former commander, Lt. Robert Adams, and his artillery comrades Scott (Doc) Thomas, a medical corps-man, and Cpl. David Fuentes, a gunner; also joining in the commemoration were Department of Veterans Affairs deputy counsel Mary Lou Keener, VVA president James L. Brazee, Jr., and fellow 2/13 veterans former corporals Dick Murphy and Peter Constacia.

A Pentagon grasping for good news in the wake of 1968's Tet Offensive by North Vietnamese forces buried the story of the Kham Due and Ngok Tavak disasters. There were no cameramen filming the pre-dawn attack on the tiny forward observation base in the misty hills near the Laotian border where so many men died and so many were left behind. But survivors could not forget it; for Brown, the return to the site of the battle and subsequent ceremony honoring those whose remains are still missing was the fulfillment of an odyssey around the world.

"I was on the last chopper out," former hospital corpsman Scott Thompson told The VVA Veteran. "Needless to say, I wanted to go back." Trained to help the wounded, Thompson was wounded himself by shrapnel and received a concussion from satchel charges the enemy threw in their first, overwhelming assault. "The code of the Corps is that you don't leave dead behind ... leaving 13 behind and not being able to do anything is unsettling."

Thompson, from Westfield, Massachusetts, is convinced remains are still there to be retrieved. "What we must do now is to search memory banks, do whatever it takes to get a closure on this, just as VVA is doing now."

Thompson told a story of mounting tension in the days and hours before the final assault by the unseen enemy. There was confusion, too, about the artillery unit's mission, and why such a small force was left to face an overwhelming foe. Patrols reported enemy contact close to the defensive wire; a patrol of Civilian Irregulars were ambushed about 200 to 300 yards from the wire. But he believes now that ambush was a ruse, or that the Irregulars were coerced into helping the invaders under threat of death. After that, the mercenary Nungs refused to allow them into the center of the compound but assigned them to outside positions.

So, when the assault began, American defenders were confused by cries of "friendlies ... friendlies" from the Irregulars. "Then they threw the satchel charges, took out our 30s [.30 calibre machine guns] and 50s, and then all hell broke loose."

While Thompson was lucky enough to get out by chopper-he was able to return to duty with the 2/13-his fellow Marine, David Fuentes, was trapped with the survivors of the assault when wrecked helicopters blocked the landing zone on the top of the hill at Ngok Tavak. He and 25 to 30 men walked out under the nose of the enemy.

Fuentes, from Chicago, remembers every aspect of the battle and has no desire to return to the site. But he came to Washington to share memories with his fellow veterans.

For Fuentes, the action took the form of an unrelenting nightmare. "The specials [Special Forces troops] said the North Vietnamese would have those guns before long," he recalled. Most of the Marines were 18 or 19; Fuentes had already narrowly escaped death by trading mine-laying duty with another trooper over a tin of spaghetti. The man who went out to plant mines, Cpl. Bruce S. Lindsay, was killed May 4.

As tensions and rumors about an impending attack rose, the decision was made to manhaul the guns to a higher and safer position within the Ngok Tavak fort, an ordeal in wet heat and up a 30-degree slope. But the big guns' firepower played little part in the sharp defensive battle. "The only reason we are alive is that we gathered around our guns and killed anyone who came near us," Fuentes said.

When a U.S. aircraft attack gave the defenders a breather the next day, Lieutenant Adams ordered his artillery men to blow up their guns and ammunition store. The dead were left with one dogtag in their mouth, the other with the living. The order to evacuate was finally given. Fuentes had lost his flak jacket and boots and helmet during the confused hand-to-hand fighting. He reequipped himself from a dead comrade's gear, picking up a helmet half filled with blood.

When a rescue helicopter arrived at the landing zone, the evacuees hacked out of the jungle. Fuentes was taken to Kham Due and then to Danang. There, he was treated for shrapnel wounds to legs and back and eventually sent back to duty with the 2/13. "Whatever was left there [at Ngok Tavak] was burned to cinders by the napalm," he said.

Visitors to Ngok Tavak in 1994 found fragments of military gear at the hilltop site, held a memorial service, gathered earth, and heard that the Vietnamese regard it as a holy place because of the great number from both sides who died there. But in spite of the cooperation of the Vietnamese and the possibility of recovering remains of many men, no systematic and scientific excavation of the site has been undertaken.

"We've seen the initiative's impact on a large number of people," Brazee told a gathering at VVA national headquarters before the ceremony, "There will be more before it's through."

   

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