In May 1969 Americans were listening to Tommy James and the
Shondells' "Crimson and Clover'' and Credence Clearwater
Revival's "Bad Moon Rising.'' Battle deaths in Vietnam passed
the record set in the Korean War early in April. Then came
Operation Apache Snow, the costly assault on the mountain that
became known as Hamburger Hill. As often happened, another
battle, a forgotten one, took place at the same time in the
In their account covering this period of the war, the official
historians of the Joint Chiefs of Staff conclude that the
forgotten battle, not Hamburger Hill, was the most important
thing happening in South Vietnam at that moment. The Highlands
fight took place in Kontum Province around the Special Forces
camps at Dak To and Ben Het, primarily the latter. This is the
story of that battle.
Northwest of Kontum City a group of Special Forces camps sat
astride the trails the North Vietnamese used to move troops
and supplies from the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the Highlands.
Dak To stood on Route 14, at the foot of a ridgeline on which
some of the camps had been located. In 1967 it was the site of
a major battle by U. S. troops. Later, the high ground
attained similar status as "Rocket Ridge'' during 1970's Dak
Seang battle. Ben Het was located about ten miles west of Dak
To, at the head of Road 579.
A pretty solid camp, Ben Het had been constructed in 1968. It
had begun life as a base camp for the Army's 4th Infantry
Division. Its main position was where Road 579 ascended a
hill. There were satellite strong points on smaller hills to
the north and west. There was an airstrip outside the
perimeter, but it could not be used when the camp was under
The Americans had several batteries of artillery under LTC
Kenneth R. Bailey, some quad-mount anti-aircraft guns in a
ground defense role, M-48 tanks, and reinforcing companies of
Civilian Indigenous Defense Group (CIDG) strikers from the
camps at Dak Pek and Mang Buk. Units of the 4th Division
regularly patrolled within its area of operations.
The sector remained quiet until February 23, 1969, when North
Vietnamese guns and mortars suddenly began shelling the
defense complex. Ben Het was within howitzer range of the
North Vietnamese bastion known as Base Area 609. Some of those
guns, in an innovation of this war, were mounted on rails that
ran into caves, into which they retracted after firing and
were protected by metal blast doors.
The defenders improved their cover and put patrols into the
surrounding terrain. Contacts were sporadic but the shelling
continued. Fighter-bombers attacked Base Area 609 on February
24 and 25, but without stopping the Vietnamese artillerymen.
MACV Commander Gen. Creighton W. Abrams wanted to commit B-52
bombers, but could not get permission from Washington.
Beginning on February 24, the Seventh Air Force began to
divert its C-7 air transports bound for Ben Het to Pleiku. The
situation was ominous for Special Forces Detachment A-244.
Maj. Jerry White was acting commander; the team leader was
Capt. Louis P. Kingsley.
For days there were probes and more shelling. On the night of
March 3 came a real attack with heavy shelling - 639 rounds.
Worse, there were NVA tanks. Ten PT-76 armored vehicles led
the North Vietnamese attack, the first actual employment of
armor in combat by the North Vietnamese since Lang Vei during
the Khe Sanh campaign, a little more than a year before.
Maj. White had a maneuver of his own. The defenders moved to
break up the attack by ambushing it short of its goal, with a
company of CIDG and two platoons of Mobile Strike Force Nungs
placed almost a kilometer outside the wire and ready to
pounce. First Lt. Michael D. Linnane, A-244's executive
officer, leading the spoiling force, reported tank noises. The
Americans with him included Green Beret weapons specialist
Richard V. Grier and medic Robert F. Umphlett.
One of the first North Vietnamese tanks was stopped by a
rocket, another by a 90mm shell from an American tank. An
unidentified vehicle hit a mine. About that time, the
battlefield came under fire from an AC-47 "Spooky'' gunship,
which White had requested as early as 9:30 p.m. Thirty air
sorties also were flown in support of Ben Het that night.
"The firefight continued and then they started hitting us with
everything they had,'' Linnane said. In their effort to
overrun Ben Het, the NVA resorted to tear gas shortly before
another assault around midnight. But the Americans, Vietnamese
Special Forces, and CIDG strikers held without difficulty. At
least one of the U.S. tanks, on the west hill strongpoint, was
damaged in the battle, which ended with daylight. Losses
included two Americans and a South Vietnamese soldier killed.
The allied command reacted quickly. The next day LTC Andrew J.
Marquis, Special Forces B-detachment leader for Kontum
province, who was responsible for much of the Central
Highlands, sent in the balance of his 1st Mobile Strike Force
battalion to conduct sweeps around Ben Het. Marquis, according
to Capt. George Dooley, B-24 staff officer, was a martinet who
regularly threatened to relieve officers under his command.
The camp commander at Ben Het was under considerable pressure.
But there was no breaking what quickly became a siege, with
the camp hit by thirty or more shells a day for weeks on end.
The garrison of 1,200 troops remained in danger. In mid-March
the CIDG reinforcement companies from other Special Forces
camps decided they wanted out and began to walk out the camp
gate. Green Berets convinced them to stay, but only long
enough for the Americans to bring in transport and get them
home en masse. Col. Marquis's reaction is not known but
probably was pyrotechnic.
During this time the Nixon administration began its secret
B-52 raids on Cambodia, code-named Operation Menu. Base Area
609 was one of the targets (called "Dessert'') and received
its share of heavy bombardment. But the Arc Light strikes were
of limited value. Special Forces writer Dalton Kast was
visiting Ben Het to gather material for the branch's magazine
when an attack on Ben Het began as B-52 bombs were still
falling. Brig. Gen. J.S. Timothy, deputy senior adviser to II
Corps during this period, recorded instances in his
end-of-tour report in which North Vietnamese units moved just
before Arc Light strikes approached, suggesting that the B-3
Front's intelligence on the Americans was very good.
Since January 1969, the Seventh Air Force had implemented new
rules of engagement in the Ben Het sector permitting strikes
without clearance from the South Vietnamese province chief,
based on coordination with the local ground commander. This
freed the fighter-bombers from many restrictions and they
ranged the area widely. The gunships, AC-47s, and AC-119s
averaged about two sorties a night overhead. Ark Light struck
targets in Base Area 609 and on both sides of the border.
The North Vietnamese nevertheless kept up a constant
harassment. Their efforts to shut down the road from Kontum to
Pleiku were thwarted at least twice by lightning interventions
by the ARVN 3rd Armored Cavalry Squadron. Through March and
into April, the NVA hit the Special Forces camp with about
three dozen shells a day, at odd times during the day and
night. The Green Berets benefited from an unusual early
warning system. A-244's mascot, a dog named "War,'' invariably
ran into the tactical operations center to take cover whenever
there was incoming, often minutes before humans heard
A lull began in mid-April. The shelling stopped at Ben Het,
but there were indications of NVA forces closing in on Dak To
behind it, the headquarters of the ARVN 24th Special Tactical
Zone, the main territorial command for the entire sector,
under Col. Nguyen Ba Lien. The South Vietnamese pulled back
into their fortifications, and the sudden absence of American
or ARVN patrols in the hills gave the NVA increased freedom of
movement. The 2nd Battalion of Special Forces' 2nd Mobile
Strike Force Command ranged more freely, but in May, when the
North Vietnamese closed in again, it too hunkered down.
The siege of Ben Het resumed on May 5. Three days later,
shelling was back to previous levels. The North Vietnamese
called this Operation Dien Bien Phu. The NVA's 40th Artillery
Regiment, and its 28th and 66th Infantry Regiments put intense
pressure on the camp. Again there were reports of tanks in the
hinterland. North Vietnamese forces mounted over seventy
attacks, ambushes, or shellings in May and June. Their forces
were estimated at 5,600 troops.
Redoubled efforts by airpower to clear the environs had some
impact, and Arc Light was there with a vengeance, bombing a
reported 140 targets. The level of effort in May and June
absorbed about a fourth of all Southeast Asia B-52 sorties.
Some 18,000 tons of munitions fell from the huge jet bombers.
The North Vietnamese adopted the practice of rapidly pushing
troops into Arc Light target boxes immediately after attacks,
hoping to catch American or ARVN units sent in to do damage
assessment. More than once they did. The South Vietnamese then
became even more cautious.
Tactical targeting was harder because of the absence of
patrols. Col. Lien's command had no intelligence plan, no
specific statements of intel requirements, and the Americans
saw little evidence that the ARVN intelligence staff was
giving units intelligence tasks or stressing battlefield
Col. Lien planned to use his forces to clear the area around
his own position (Dak To) and then see what he could do about
Ben Het. That is what happened when the siege resumed. Lien's
forces were the ARVN 42nd Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Ranger
Group. Both had their limitations, with desertion rates
averaging sixty to seventy men per month per thousand.
In fact, the 42nd declined to 78 percent of its assigned
strength by June even though it had a corps priority for
replacements. The Rangers had 84 percent of their strength.
Lien's combat support included the equivalent of almost three
ARVN artillery battalions, and a recently formed troop
transport helicopter company.
In early June he was reinforced by a task force consisting of
the ARVN 22nd Division's 47th Infantry Regiment and 14th
Armored Cavalry Squadron. Later there was another
reinforcement, a task force from the 23rd Division consisting
of two battalions of the ARVN 53rd Infantry. Special Forces
committed the 4th Battalion of its 2nd Mobile Strike Force
Command. There were a half dozen other U.S. battalions of the
4th Infantry Division in the Highlands at the time, but they
did not participate directly in the Ben Het campaign. A total
of 15,600 allied troops were involved.
While Col. Lien fought to disengage Dak To, the siege of Ben
Het went on. It was especially harsh for civilians who lived
in the camp. The Montagnard hunters and gatherers could hardly
go outside the camp. The pace of the bombardment doubled on
May 11. Word circulated that this would be The Day. Down at
the helicopter pad only medevacs were permitted. Capt.
Kingsley of Detachment A-244 called the alert, but other
officers, including engineer detachment chief Capt. James
Hager and the Regular Army artillery officers were in
agreement. No attack occurred that night.
That Sunday was a pretty day in the Central Highlands. No
attack occurred that night. The worst complaint was the
teamhouse refrigerator held no soda.
Some Americans, especially among personnel of the three
artillery batteries now emplaced on Ben Het's satellite strong
points, groused about the situation. The South Vietnamese were
favorite targets. At least three times ARVN 155mm guns fired
on the Ben Het positions in error. The detritus of combat and
the danger involved in cleaning up in the middle of a siege
made some liken the camp to a garbage dump. Others saw MACV
holding them out as bait for the North Vietnamese. Some
believed the whole campaign was being staged to show that ARVN
could fight on its own.
Air resupply became a problem. Sometimes C-7 Caribous had to
parachute their loads into the Special Forces camp. For
landings, a full program was laid on. First the hills
surrounding Ben Het were softened up by A-1 fighter-bombers
trying to make the North Vietnamese gunners keep their heads
down. A forward air controller supervised the Caribou's
approach, with a pair of F-4 Phantoms stacked up to react on
his call to any anti-aircraft fire. Planes dropped smoke just
before the C-7s lined up for their final approaches.
Even so, by late June the C-7s could no longer stay on the
ground long enough to unload. Supplies had to be airdropped.
Two hundred tons of supplies arrived this way between June 10
and the end of the battle.
On some days the bombardment reached a level of a hundred or
two hundred shells. On June 23 there was a serious probing
attack that led to a three-hour firefight. One American was
killed and a half-dozen more wounded. The NVA, estimated to
have 1,500 to 2,000 troops in the immediate vicinity of the
camp, did not relent.
They also tried a little psychological warfare. Beginning the
night following the attack, the North Vietnamese used
loudspeakers to promise destruction while offering safety if
the defenders surrendered. The messages in English and
Vietnamese were punctuated with a bombardment of sixty-five
shells. The U.S. command answered with B-52 strikes that
loosed 340 tons of bombs.
Green Beret Capt. Dooley visited Ben Het twice during the
siege. He learned that the NVA had dug zig-zag trenches up to
the defensive wire, even through it in places. In late June,
CIDG strikers discovered two tunnel systems under the North
Hill strongpoint that went under all three barbed wire
entanglements and reached the bunkers of the outer perimeter
defenses. The artillery battery lost 72 men dead or wounded in
seven weeks of the latest round of the siege. Only fifty
remained. Total casualties among the U.S. artillerymen in the
siege included 15 killed and 138 wounded. Their six 105mm
self-propelled guns were intact, but North Hill lost its one
amenity, a 12-inch screen television set.
Battery commander Capt. John Horalek remarked, "If we weren't
here to help the defense there would be nothing left of Ben
Het,'' as another barrage of mortar rounds wounded more men.
Total American casualties from the bombardment added up to
over a hundred in June alone. No records show the losses among
the CIA-financed Khmer Serei striker company that provided
Other losses included one Green Beret killed and 16 wounded;
one South Vietnamese Special Forces killed and seven others
wounded; 15 ARVN soldiers killed and 70 wounded; and 52 CIDG
strikers killed and 141 wounded. There were 23 civilians
killed and 11 wounded. Engineers eventually came and bulldozed
the hill to where it was barely half its previous height.
The NVA plotted the helicopter pad for mortar barrages, though
they never seemed to get the range right. In the ten seconds
that passed between a helicopter landing and the shells
arriving, one had either to take cover behind ARVN tanks near
the pad or run uphill toward the camp. One journalist arriving
from Pleiku was told by the pilot that the ship would not even
land and that the reporter should jump out and run like hell.
Freelance reporter Richard Boyle made the ten-minute
helicopter flight from Pleiku wondering if he was rushing to a
place that others undoubtedly wished they could get out of.
The helicopter "came in low and fast, hugging the treetops to
give the NVA gunners less time to shoot,'' recalled Boyle. He
and the television news crew on the helicopter with him jumped
when it hit the ground and raced to foxholes. Not a shot was
fired at them.
As far as Ben Het was concerned, it was the future rather than
the present that was at issue. While the NVA had not yet made
an all-out assault, they could do so at any time. The ``Dien
Bien Phu'' moniker they had given the operation suggested they
might. It was therefore imperative to disengage the Special
Forces camp and to restore its overland road connection with
Dak To and Kontum. This brought in the ARVN 24th Special
Col. Nguyen Ba Lien fought first at Dak To. There he used
South Vietnamese troops to push out into the hills and fix the
North Vietnamese in place, after which air strikes bloodied
them. This was operation Dan Quyen ("People's Right") 38-A. It
began on May 15. Before it ended, the ARVN claimed to have
killed 945 of the enemy. By early June the field around Dak To
Lien would not budge toward Ben Het without reinforcement -a
senior American adviser described the South Vietnamese colonel
as "running out of gas.'' But excuses were not possible once
Col. Lien got the troops: two task forces - four rifle
battalions in all - from the ARVN 22nd and 23rd Divisions,
plus roughly half the South Vietnamese armor in II Corps.
Supporting artillery would have been suitable for a South
Vietnamese divisional operation. The United States helped with
a battery of 175mm guns and a battalion of 105mm howitzers.
The Americans also furnished almost all the helicopters, over
400 B-52 sorties, and 95 percent of the tactical air support
(over a thousand sorties in all) for the relief effort. The
hills opposite Ben Het, once heavily forested, were stripped
bare by the allied firepower, but without driving away the
There were two aspects to the South Vietnamese relief of Ben
Het. One was to get supplies to the Special Forces camp by
road convoy, the second to clear North Vietnamese forces from
the surrounding peaks. Evidently Col. Lien did not use all his
extra forces for the relief of Ben Het, diverting many of them
to holding open lines of communication between Kontum and Dak
To and mopping up other points in his area of operations.
Capt. Walter Maslowski, a U.S. adviser with the ARVN forces,
said to reporters: "We've been told to make do with what we've
got. Well, that boils down to four half-strength battalions of
South Vietnamese troops who are too weak and too tired to
guard all the roads leading into Ben Het.''
In mid-June the South Vietnamese succeeded in getting a road
convoy into Ben Het. But for more than a week after that, NVA
ambushes and mines prevented further success. ARVN officers
admitted to losing 27 vehicles. Hanoi radio broadcasts claimed
some 183 had been destroyed. The road between Dak To and Ben
Het was littered with the carcasses of burnt-out trucks and
Another convoy reached Ben Het over Road 512 on June 24. Again
the effort required a tough operation. The ARVN 42nd Regiment
provided the bulk of the convoy force and fought a half-day
battle against ambushers just over halfway between Dak To and
Ben Het. They admitted to five dead and 15 wounded and claimed
to have killed 105 NVA. Further on, just half a mile from the
Special Forces camp, an American detachment of the 299th
Engineer Battalion clearing mines for the convoy fell into
another ambush and suffered two dead and 21 men wounded. The
ARVN soldiers escorting the engineers fled when the shooting
As the convoy neared Ben Het, a helicopter lift inserted an
ARVN Ranger battalion just a mile from the camp. The North
Vietnamese 40th Artillery stepped up its bombardment and hit
Ben Het with 195 shells that day, at least five of them
bearing tear gas. Six American artillerymen were wounded. Col.
Marquis at the Special Forces B-24 Detachment in Kontum told
reporters that the North Vietnamese had up to 3,000 troops,
plus porters, still besieging Ben Het.
The South Vietnamese command followed up immediately with a
new convoy push. This showed how difficult the road operations
could be. William Donnell was one of the Americans along for
this trip. Donnell, with the 525th Military Intelligence Group
running agents over the Cambodian border from late 1967
through early 1969, had fallen in love with Vietnam and
returned almost immediately as a freelance reporter. Trying to
make his mark as a journalist, he had learned that Ben Het was
the biggest thing happening in the Central Highlands and had
come up to cover it.
Donnell was on the roof of the ARVN armored personnel carrier
that was the command vehicle for the convoy, crouched behind
the sandbags on the roof. When the inevitable ambush occurred,
the South Vietnamese officer in charge stopped the APC and
began trying to maneuver his forces. The track stayed
stationary too long and came under fire. When they moved
forward, they found the road blocked by a big flatbed trailer
truck that had broken down.
The South Vietnamese driver was desperately trying to repair
the truck as the bullets whizzed by. Once he got it going, the
driver hightailed out of the trap. Donnell could see the road
up ahead made a turn and was a perfect place to shoot at
vehicles on the straightaway. Sure enough, the APC was
disabled by a well-aimed shot. Donnell moved to another
vehicle, but the ARVN sergeant in charge there was also slow
and they were hit. Wounded, Donnell went back to Pleiku to get
patched up. He never made it to Ben Het camp.
Some of the convoy did make Ben Het, and Col. Lien shifted to
the clearing phase of his operation. On June 27, another
Mobile Strike Force company air assaulted directly into the
camp. Helicopter gunships working the country just outside the
wire claimed two dozen enemy killed that day. Yet that night a
lone North Vietnamese infantryman engaged two American
fighter-bombers, repeatedly firing on them even as they worked
over the entire area where he was.
A Green Beret sergeant told an American reporter: "I'll never
understand where or how Ho Chi Minh gets those kinds of men.''
Meanwhile, nine Americans were wounded in the bombardment,
which the North Vietnamese escalated to 445 rounds. The United
States retaliated with 60 B-52s that delivered 1,800 tons of
bombs. Convoys continued the buildup until seven ARVN
battalions augmented the equivalent of two American-led strike
force battalions already at the camp, in all about 5,000
Gen. William B. Rosson, deputy commander of U.S. forces in
Vietnam, flew in to visit. "I think the situation is
exceedingly favorable,'' Rosson said. "We've punished the
enemy severely. The camp is intact, fully manned,
well-supplied, and the morale of the forces is very high.''
That day Arc Light deposited another 1,500 tons of bombs in 50
Four of the new units began working along both sides of Road
512 and 579 to disengage the line of communications. Two more
battalions cleared the ground outside the perimeter wire. The
next day the NVA bombardment fell to only 53 shells, and on
June 30 there was no bombardment at all. Ten shells fell on
July 1 when another road convoy arrived at the camp. Not a
single bullet was fired at the convoy during its passage.
Col. Nguyen Ba Lien held a press conference and claimed the
North Vietnamese were being "smashed.'' Lien changed the name
of his operation from the "People's Right'' to "Sure Win.''
The colonel asserted that his strategy all along had been to
sucker the NVA into a small kill zone where firepower could be
concentrated on them. He promised to invite reporters to drive
with him to Ben Het in a few days' time. Journalists quoted an
American adviser saying, "Who's he kidding?''
On July 2, the siege of Ben Het was declared over. The NVA
faded away. They were not trapped anywhere. The Ben Het camp
itself was completely rebuilt by the U.S. 20th Engineer
Battalion. Every one of its bunkers was replaced and
strengthened. "One of our biggest accomplishments in this
whole thing has been to keep the war in the boonies,'' Col.
Marquis maintained, claiming the alternative would have been
fighting in the villages with attendant civilian casualties.
Of course, that was not the nature of war in the Central
Highlands. Gen. Timothy, the II Corps deputy senior adviser,
noted that the battle had exposed grave weaknesses in South
Vietnamese leadership, particularly among junior officers and
NCOs. As for the idea of Ben Het stopping infiltration in the
tri-border region, the camp continued to be held until late in
the war and was eventually converted into an ARVN Ranger
It was the North Vietnamese who masked Ben Het, not the other
way around, and often with very small forces. The American
media were lambasted, both by Col. Lien and by U.S. officers,
for reporting that Ben Het had been a test of Vietnamization,
of the ability of the South Vietnamese army to fight on their
own. Field commanders denied this. But the Joint Chiefs of
Staff history records that Ben Het "was the first major
independent RVNAF operation of the war and was anxiously
watched by U.S. military advisers as a test of [South
Clearly a lot more work needed to be done.