The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
May/June 2005
FEATURE
 
 

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 MIA.

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 figure.”

JPAC continues to investigate the case.

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 missing.”

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii is scheduled to conduct excavations in the Kham Duc area this summer.

   

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