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
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.
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
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.
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."