Double Cross At Ngok Tavak
BY JIM BELSHAW
On May 10, 1968, at three o’clock
in the morning at Ngok Tavak, a Forward Operating Base near the
Vietnam-Laos border, a small force of U.S. Marines, a handful of
Australian and U.S. Special Forces, and 122 ethnic Chinese Nungs
working under the command of Australian Capt. John White engaged
elements of an invading North Vietnamese Army division and Viet
Cong guerrillas. Ngok Tavak was not the primary target of the
vastly superior NVA force. The FOB stood in the way of NVA’s
primary goal—Kham Duc, five kilometers to the north, the last
Special Forces camp still standing in the area.
Eleven kilometers east of the
Laos border, the old French fort at Ngok Tavak had been chosen
by the Australian commander as his base of operations. American
military intelligence knew that the NVA division was working
toward the elimination of the Kham Duc Special Forces camp and
the Special Forces Group in Danang had sent the 11th Mobile
Strike Force, commanded by Capt. White, to conduct
reconnaissance operations in the area.
After about five weeks in Ngok
Tavak, White, who had depended heavily on moving quickly and at
a moment’s notice, saw that ability disappear in an instant as
he looked overhead and saw a platoon of Marine Corps artillery
being helicoptered into his position. The commander in Danang
ordered White to dig in and prepare to engage the NVA.
A Civilian Irregular Defense
Group platoon also was sent to Ngok Tavak. White’s suspicions
that the CIDG platoon had been infiltrated by Viet Cong soon
proved to be correct. It would come at great expense to the
small force, given the task of defending the old French fort.
At 3:00 a.m., on May 10, a Marine
manning a .50 caliber machine gun challenged CIDG troops
approaching his position. They identified themselves as
friendly. Moments later, two NVA companies rushed in throwing
satchel charges into the machine gun position and igniting
mortar ammunition with flamethrowers. The attack took the
Marines completely by surprise.
Tim Brown, a veteran of the Ngok
Tavak battle and the prime driving force behind the long
campaign to bring home and identify those Marines killed in the
battle but whose bodies were never recovered, suggests that a
potential title for any story describing that night’s events
might be “Double Cross.”
“Two Navy Crosses were awarded as
a result of that battle and when we were interacting with the
CIDG and people who were supposed to be friendly South
Vietnamese forces, they penetrated the wire by saying ‘Don’t
shoot! Friendly! Friendly!’,” Brown said. “So in effect we were
double-crossed. That’s how the battle opened.”
The fight lasted ten hours, much
of it involving hand-to-hand combat. In 1995, when John White
returned to the site, he met the NVA commander who led the
invading force. Only then did the two men discover that at some
point in the night, they were mere yards from one another and
didn’t know it.
Thirteen Americans never returned
from Ngok Tavak—12 Marines and a Special Forces medic, who
stayed to treat the wounded. Capt. White did not realize that
the medic chose to remain with the injured men. It is still not
known if the medic was killed or captured. He is still listed as
Dickie Hites, special assistant
to the commander at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in
Hawaii, said of the medic, Thomas Perry: “We didn’t find him.
That’s one of the great tragedies of this. He’s such a heroic
JPAC continues to investigate the
Early on the afternoon of May 10,
a napalm strike burned a path through the jungle. Following the
still-burning escape route, Ngok Tavak’s survivors went east for
about seven kilometers, until they found a location safe enough
to call in helicopters that would carry them to the Special
Forces camp at Kham Duc.
When they got there, the NVA had
just begun to attack. In the next two days, the NVA surrounded
Kham Duc, overran the outposts, and began pounding the camp with
mortar and recoilless rifle fire. In what would be called “one
of the most harrowing evacuation efforts of the Vietnam War,”
Air Force, Marine, and Army aviators flew hundreds of missions
in support of the embattled camp. Nine aircraft were lost to the
intense fire concentrated on the base. Twenty-five U.S.
personnel were KIA, 96 WIA, and 23 MIA. Some of the MIA-BNR were
recovered in 1970 operations when the camp was retaken.
“Others were recovered in the
late 1990s,” Brown said. “But a number [seven] are still
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting
Command in Hawaii is scheduled to conduct excavations in the
Kham Duc area this summer.