January 1968 – FSB Burt and The Hourglass
1. FSB Burt was located astride Route 244, probably at about XT500805. Route 246 runs northwest through Bo Tuc and then Katum.
2. According to radio logs from the 187th AHC, The Hourglass was due north of FSB Burt at XT500890. It was about 4 Km south of the Cambodian border. It’s probably the clearing just north of the words “Suoi Tanken”
On the night of January 1 – 2, 1968 , the 2-22 Infantry (Mechanized), 3-22 Infantry, and the 2-77 Artillery (25th Infantry Division) were involved in a massive human wave attack by four battalions of NVA and VC at a place called Fire Support Base Burt in Vietnam. Throughout the night, the 22nd Infantrymen, supported by their artillery brothers and helicopter crewman from the 187th and 188th Assault Helicopter Companies fought back against the determined enemy assault. When the firing stopped between 0530 and 0600 the next morning, The Americans were victorious in repulsing the attack. Over 401 NVA and VC were killed with American losses at 23 killed and 153 wounded.
The battle for Fire Support Base (FSB) Burt, also known as the Battle of Soui Cut was “memorialized” in the last battle scene in the movie “Platoon”. Oliver Stone was there that night as a grunt with Bravo Company 3rd of the 22nd Infantry. He was hit and eventually medevac’d. I think he got hit during the morning stage.
I will post this summary of the Infantry After Action Report. I only start with the human wave attacks during the early hours of January 2, 1968. It was this action that gun crews from the “Ratpack”, 187th AHC, and a couple of “slick” crews were in support of the ground troops engaged at FSB Burt. I flew during that night dropping flares. Another of our slick pilots Wayne “Crash” Coe also flew that night resupplying and medevac’ing wounded. His story is here
Infantry After Action Summary
The main force of the attack began at approximately 0001 hours, beginning at the northern portion of the perimeter. The main force moved down the west side of the road and peeled off to the portion of the perimeter occupied by 2-22 Infantry (M) with only a small force attacking one platoon of Company B, 3-22 Infantry on the east side of the road. Almost simultaneously a heavy attack of RPG’s, machine guns and small arms opened up on the southern portion of the perimeter along the road. The heaviest force peeled to the east attacking Company C while a smaller assault element moved to the west toward the element of the 2-22 Infantry (M) on the west side of the road. The attack from the south followed the road, the majority of the attackers moving along the ditches which paralleled the road on both sides. Within minutes, a large force opened up with RPG’s, machine guns, small arms, and grenades at the eastern perimeter, attempting to penetrate the company perimeter. The VC continued to cover their attack with 60mm mortar fire. All US personnel not occupying LP or ambushes were defending from sandbagged bunkers with overhead covers.
Between 0100 to 0230 hours, 105mm Beehive direct fire was requested and fired along Company C perimeter. VC had penetrated a portion of Company C perimeter at approximately 0200 hours. Beehive rounds eliminated penetration except for four (4) VC. From 0230 to 0400 hours, direct fire from 105mm artillery across Company C perimeter, firing Beehive until expended, then firing HE direct. Company A was reinforced by direct fire across its perimeter from 155mm artillery. At 0200 hours, Company A lost radio communications with its 16 element and two (2) or three (3) VC penetrated the perimeter. At 0300 hours, 2 platoons of Company B (reserve) were committed to reinforce and hold Company A perimeter. From 0445 to 0500 hours, Reconnaissance Platoons was committed to reinforce Company C, who had sustained slight penetration. Recon Platoon could not reinforce previous to this because constant direct fire of Beehive rounds prevented any movement in that area. At 0330 hours, one (1) APC from 2-22 Infantry (M) perimeter was moved to reinforce Company C from rear, and a second APC was placed at 0430 hours. Between 0230 hours and 0330 hours, air strikes were placed on area to the southeast in front of Company C perimeter employing both napalm and CBU.
At approximately 0230 hours, Company C ambush reported that 50% of its personnel were casualties. At the time one (1) was KIA from RPG, and several were wounded. In the morning, it was determined that of the 16 men ambush, there had been 1 KIA, 11 WIA from enemy fire and 1 KIA due to the close air support.
Fierce close in fighting continued until approximately 0500 hours, when the VC began to withdraw leaving behind their dead and wounded. By 0630 hours, the fighting had nearly stopped with only occasional sniper and some automatic weapons fire. Estimated enemy casualties after early morning sweep near perimeter, 105 VC KIA (BC), 2 VC (PW). Undetermined number of VC individual and crew served weapons. US losses, 16 KIA, 99 WIA. The enemy size and units were not determined exactly, however, it was fairly certain that the size of the force was at least a reinforced regiment with elements from the 271st and 272nd VC Regiments positively identified both from documents and PW interrogation
What this summary doesn’t mention is that the enemy did penetrate the wire at Burt, but was forced back by counter attacks and artillery fire using bee hive rounds.
I continued to fly in support of FSB Burt for most of the day on January 2. Mostly medevac and resupply. We had many crews up by that time and late in the day we all flew back to Tay Ninh together. The significance of Burt was that it was one of the first human wave attacks in our area of operation (AO). We had worked much further north in November and December in support of Loc Ninh and Bu Dop. This had been my first experience with what a 105mm bee hive round can do to attacking enemy troops. At Loc Ninh, there were enemy troops nailed to trees by bee hive rounds. Plus the runway was littered with unexploded mortar rounds, just sticking out like arrows. We had to land right in the middle of them. But at Burt, they were bull dozing the enemy into a mass grave with bulldozers, definitely gets a 20 year olds attention.
Our unit the 187th Assault Helicopter Company continued to fly support for the 25th Infantry Division around FSB Burt for the next few days. Most 5 ship lifts and ferrying troops between Burt and Tay Ninh.
From the 187th AHC Incident Reports
2 Jan 1968 – The Rat Pack gunships killed six Viet Cong when they responded to a call for gunship cover in the early morning hours at Fire Support Base Burt twenty five miles northeast of Tay Ninh. The base bad been hit by an enemy mortar attack and a ground attack was underway when the Rat Pack arrived on the scene and disrupted the enemy assault by 2 NVA Regiments. This was the battle of Soui Cut.
5 Jan 1968 – The Blackhawks became involved in a fierce battle with a large NVA force while on short final to an LZ, thirty five mikes northwest of Tay Ninh. Two helicopters were shot down by the heavy enemy automatic weapons fire. One crew member, SP5 Kenneth Scruton was killed. The three remaining crew, Warrant Officer Mercer, Warrant Officer Jordan and SP4 Seitz were down in an enemy infested area for two hours before they were rescued. The only weapon among them was one .45 caliber pistol. The Blackhawks continued the combat assault missions into the hostile area and later that afternoon, they returned for extractions. Again they received heavy enemy resistance. The flight was mortared while shut down at a nearby fire support base. Throughout the day, ten crew members were wounded and eleven aircraft sustained damage from the ballistic assault.
We were scheduled for an insertion of B Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division on January 5, 1968. This was not uncommon as the 4/9 “Manchu” usually requested us when they had a combat assault (CA) to do. To tell this story, I am going to use the commentary of the 4/9 Commander, written almost 40 years later. He describes what is happening to the ground troops and I will add my commentary on what was happening to me and the rest of the 187th AHC.
By: Colonel (Retired) John M. Henchman
4th Battalion CO
Oct. 1, 1967 -March 3, 1968
The Third Brigade’s main base was Dau Tieng. Like our Brigade, they had a forward base at Soui Cut. FSB Burt, They had occupied this position for just a few days. Like us, they were astride a major road and trail network leading to Saigon- On the night of January 1, a reinforced regiment of NVA attacked and did severe damage to the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry.
The MANCHUs were ordered to immediately leave Katum,go OPCON to the Third Brigade, and relieve the 2/22 Infantry. I flew down there at once to meet with the Brigade CO, Colonel Daemes. The position occupied by the 2/22 Infantry, and other areas, were just a mess. Our battalion did better than that in a couple of hours each day.
As the lead elements of the MANCHUs got there, we began to get things organized. By late evening, we were all in, and as Bill and I walked around, we could see immediately that our guys were a whole hell of a lot better soldiers than those that had been there before.
Operations: January 3-4:
Usual stuff. Short sweeps into the immediate area. Some contact. Colonel Daemes wanted us to S&D out farther. He assigned an area for January 5 that was just 1 KM from the Cambodian Border. Because of its hour-glass shape, that is what we came to call it.
The “Hour Glass” Landing Zone – January 5:
It must be said that this was the most difficult and frustrating day I spent in Vietnam in terms of commanding an “operation”. It was a deadly day for many-way too many. It is so firmly planted in my memory, I can visualize almost every detail and recall vividly some, of the words spoken.
Company A and D were sent off into another AO to do a sweep, and to be extracted in the late afternoon. It was Company C’s turn to remain in position in FSB BURT. Company B was to go into the Hour-Glass using the lift ships initially used by Company A.
Bill and I had made the decision not to put preparation fires around an LZ – because it invariable brought “Charlie”. The defensive fires were, however, meticulously planned, and available “on call”. I did order SMOKEY in on the east, north, and west sides of this LZ because it could be seen from higher ground in Cambodia, and I knew there were base camps close by. [Hell, you could see the tin covered roofs.]
My Note: The Bill he is referring to is Major William Rousch. He won the DSC on this day, but prior he had multiple awards of the Silver Star and was known as a brave and effective leader. He was the battalion S-3 (Operations) and worked with us often as it was his job to plan the battalion assaults. He lead the team that rescued our downed pilots, which is referred to later on in the narrative. He was well known and respected by the men of the 187th AHC. He earned his second DSC on February 27, 1968, unfortunately, it was a posthumous award.
The pickup zone (PZ) was BURT. I was overhead in the C&C. Bill was with the first lift. The first lift into the LZ landed “cold”. That platoon headed off the LZ into the southern wood line per plan. The second lift was just hovering for drop off when several .51 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns swept the flight. The troops were caught in the open. One chopper crashed and burned, killing the pilot and one door gunner. The other crew members lay near the crash badly injured. As I looked down on that horrific sight, I saw Bill STAND UP firing his carbine at those gun emplacements, and then guiding one or two members of the platoon at a time into defiladed positions on the edge of the woods. He did this ten or twelve times until all the platoon was off the LZ. [I later put him in for his first DSC for this heroism above and beyond the call]
My Note: I was flying chalk 9 that day (next to last ship in formation). We went in in two 5 ship formations. The LZ was not big enough for 10 ships. It was shaped like an hour glass as stated earlier. But the dividing restriction came almost together, so we landed in the southern portion, which was the largest. The first flight got in and out no problem, but on the way out they reported seeing troops in the open moving toward the LZ. Upon out approach, they opened up on us just prior to touchdown. We got down and off loaded, but were taking hits and casualties almost immediately. The ship referred to above was hit by and RPG and exploded on take off, he crashed in the northern clearing of the hour glass. So we got off the LZ with 4 ships, one with my tent mate William Preston, wounded in the shoulder, another smoking pretty badly. Chalk 10 (trail, last ship in formation) circled back to try and pick up the downed crew (that’s always trail’s mission), but the enemy fire was way too heavy, after two attempts BH6 (Blackhawk 6, Major Joe Burns, 187th Commander) called him off and decided it was safer for the infantry to rescue them. On the trip back to the PZ, the smoking bird lost its engine and made a forced landing, I went in to pick up the crew and take them to the LZ, the ship with Preston continued to Tay Ninh to the nearest medical facility. I retuned to the PZ dropped off the downed crew, picked up some infantry and took them out to secure the downed aircraft, then back to the PZ. At FSB Burt, we landed on the road running through the center of the FSB, shutdown to conserve, and waited on the next phase.
What saved that platoon from complete annihilation was that the NVA gunners had AA parapets and could not depress their muzzles much below three feet from the ground giving an infantryman a chance to crawl under it. As soon as the two platoons were in, I had to decide: what next. The two platoons were taking heavy mortar and small arms fire from across the LZ to the north. By now, of course, I was firing everything available around those platoons. I had ISSUE 11 get air in-bound; I had SMOKY continue to make passes until he was too full of holes to continue; I requested and got gun ships two at first, then more. By now it was midmorning. I needed to reinforce the two platoons on the ground because they did not have enough combat power to make it alone. I ordered the next platoon in, but the lift was hit hard by small arms fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire. The lift commander chose to abort. Now, my choices were limited. It was obvious that we had landed in the middle of a very sophisticated headquarters, well-defended. I had to reinforce in real strength, or get those two platoons out of there. I asked Colonel Daemes to get Company A and D saddled up wherever they were and get then ready to reinforce. His response: “Let’s wait a bit, Henchman, and see what happens here. Maybe we can handle this with what you have here.” I waited, and time was not in our favor.
An hour went by-it is almost noon now. Some of B Company’s guys had rescued and secured the rest of the, shot-down crew. The troops in the wood line had dug in, Bill and I were in constant contact. Their situation was precarious. But I needed more people on the ground, or needed to get those two platoons OUT! Meantime, I had more and more firepower allocated. At about 1300, I had one SMOKY; three Cav LOH doing recon; TWELVE gunships sort of going in a big circle delivering ordnance, jets were making continuous bombing runs with GPs, 20mm, and clusters; and I had priority of Division fires that could reach this area-which was basically Daemes DS Arty battalion at BURT. Again, I told him we should reinforce with the whole battalion. something very big – a division headquarters? COSVN? His response: “I can’t do that. We can’t afford to let BURT be that undefended.” I was furious. If I could have gotten TROPIC 6 on the line, I would have. He was not available to me on the net I had in the chopper.
About 1330 – 1400, one of the Cav LOH saw a bunch of weapons near positions that looked abandoned on the ground in the woods just west of the LZ. Daemes ordered me to put one platoon of Company A in there to get them. I set that up very reluctantly. While this activity was going on, the battalion net was flooded with some phony Australian claiming to be operating in our AO, and all this fire was dangerous to his operation. I needed to stop it. No way! We did some triangularization on him with the choppers, and bombed him harder because he was transmitting from Cambodia. Later, I was chastised about responding on the battalion “Push” by Communication Security guys, but as I explained, they knew all our frequencies and, besides,, I was in full control on my alternate frequency.
My Note: During this waiting period, FSB Burt was hit with a heavy mortar attack. I was sitting in the back of my helicopter trying to eat some C’s when it started. I was wearing an old uniform shirt my father-in-law had given me, it had metal buttons on it. I immediately started looking for somewhere to hide, and saw nothing. We were beside a bunker but only the small forward facing gun slit was toward us, the larger door was in the back. I didn’t care I just reacted. I hit that slit head first and full speed, and since I was a skinny guy then, I made it through. It took all the buttons off the front of that shirt, everyone of them, all down the front and both pockets. They walked the mortars through the artillery area which was adjacent to the road and where we were parked. Luckily only minor damage to any helicopter, but they flattened the tires on a few artillery pieces, so the gun crew was hollering for us to get out of the bunker and help them muscle the gun into the correct firing azimuth. So I got out and helped them get into firing position. Then as they started firing, I went to the gun master and asked to put the lanyard, so he let me fire off about 3 rounds. At least I felt like I was doing something.
When the A company platoon got on the ground west of the LZ, “hot” of course, it turned out that this was just a trap. I spent the next two hours, and lost a couple more choppers getting them out in one piece with only a couple WIA’s.
My Note: While loading up for this sortie, one of he 2nd Lt for the infantry, got on my helicopter and proceeded to shoot himself in the foot. It went through and into the aircraft floorboard, but did not penetrate the fuel cell. I radioed the lead and asked what to do, did he want me to medevac the guy. The infantry CO came back and said “Hell No, kick him off and let the medic there take care of him, he needed troops in the LZ”. So off he went and we departed for the next insertion. On this lift, I was trail (Chalk 5), we made the insertion into a hot LZ, then on departure their was some wounded infantry, hit on the initial insertion, so I waited to get them on board. Mortar rounds going off all around me, kicking dirt up on my windshield, just knew I was taking a ton of round into the copter. Got loaded, took off, back to Burt, no wounded that couldn’t be handled at the medical facility there. Upon inspection, could not find any holes, we had come through all that unblemished. During the attempts to extract the ground troops, a couple of more helicopters were shot up. Our company, or the remainder of our company went to another base to refuel. We had to take turns as there was only 2 or 3 points, so it was slow. After refueling, we lined up on the runway and checked aircraft, this reduced us even more as a couple found damage that made them unsafe to fly. By this time we were down to 6 or so slicks, even though the company had sent us what they had available as replacements throughout the day.
It was about this time that the C&C was hit by a lot of ground fire, the pilot [the BLACKHAWKS C.0.] told me we were “going down”. My RTO said the engine was on fire. We crash landed into an open field about 2 KM from the Hour Glass, and all of us were picked up almost immediately by Colonel Daemes in his C&C. Only now his C&C was so overloaded that we had to go back to BURT to unload. Soon as I got to BURT, I got into a slick–only thing available-and was back in about 30 minutes. Only, I did not have the good communications afforded by the C&C. It was getting along toward 1600. Two platoons of Company B were still in the tree line, getting hit with all sorts of fire. Since it was obvious I could not reinforce, I concentrated on getting these guys out. The first lift of slicks came in about 1630, took lots of fire, and the LZ was covered with mortar fire, but they made it out-just barely.
My Note: So two platoons, that means two sorties into a hot LZ with our 5 ships, 30 guys at a time. We made those two sorties, both under fire into and out of a hot LZ, receiving fire from all around. Land, let them load, make sure their all aboard, then take off over the enemy guns. The standard load is 6 combat equipped troops for a UH-1D model, a UH-1H model can take more, but we had D’s. If you can’t take a load, you kick one off, he then goes to the next ship in line, and they try to take him, etc. The first trip out I ended up with 8 troops, luckily I had a good ship and plenty of LZ room to make a running take-off, cleared the trees and headed for the PZ. I let the flight know that on the next trip they needed to try harder, wasn’t sure I could handle another 8. So on the second lift, I ended up with 8 again, same process. That aircraft was 929 and it probably was the strongest aircraft in the unit, thank goodness. We attempted another lift to get the remaining troops out, but the enemy fire was the most intense I can ever remember. Small-arms, coupled with .51 cal, and mortars who had the LZ registered, its was hell. We did make it in, but the troops weren’t organized and we couldn’t wait, so out we came.
That left Hector Colon’s platoon in the tree line, some dead, some wounded. All critically low on ammunition, and darkness only a little way off. If they could not be out before dark, that platoon would have been lost in the night. They did not have the combat power to survive. BLACKHAWK 6 and ships from the 187 Assault Helicopter Company rallied to the cause, got a few birds without holes together. I had made a very low level pass with the slick I was in and pushed out several cases of ammunition to Hector. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I recall giving what encouragement I could, ending with: “God bless you, Hector, and KEEP UP THE FIRE. We will move heaven and earth to get you out of this.” First try was no good. Flight aborted. Too much fire. Second try, Hector had his guys ready, carrying their dead and wounded, and got them on the choppers which took off immediately as loaded. Only problem was, two took off without a full load, leaving the last slick with a crew of 4, seven dead and four wounded, a total of 15 for a slick designed to pull out with a maximum load of 11. I literally willed that slick to fly. It barely made it over the tree line, and barely made it to BURT. What Hector’s guys did, individually and collectively, was gallantry in action. NO soldiers ever did better for each other. I put the entire platoon in for decorations for heroism. Some, sad to say, were posthumous. From that day to this, my respect for those MANCHUs is immense.
But the effects of that day were, not over:
The support helicopter companies were severely damaged. Three had been shot down’ and burned somewhere, including the C&C I had been riding. They had quite a few WlA’s among their crews, and most of the slicks needed lots of holes patched. I was visited by the Communications Security guys from MACV who chewed my ass for communicating with the enemy on my net
This is where things started to go sour, at least in my estimation. It had already been a bad day and as far as our ’prestige’ as a unit, was about to get worse. We had made repeated insertions and/or extractions from a hot LZ. Had multiple crew members wounded and lost numerous aircraft. But we had attempted to complete every mission given to us. After the attempt to extract the final platoon, we went back to the refuel point. We would wait here while they softened up the area with air strikes, artillery, and gunships. To give the guns priority on refueling, we lined up on the side of the runway and started to shut down. The plan was after the guns refueled to crank up in by twos and hover over to refuel. But as the first gun got topped off and was taking off, his blades stuck the blades of the lead aircraft as it was shutting down. Lucky for the crews it only stuck the first few inches of each blade, knocking off the blade tip cap on each aircraft. But in the rotary wing world this is very bad, causes an unbalanced rotor and severe vibrations, so both aircraft are grounded. I watched it happen and couldn’t believe it.
Now confusion started to reign supreme. There started to be a crew shuffle, lead had lost his aircraft, so he was transferring to another, some crew had had enough and others still wanted to go back in, so their was lots of shuffling. During all this, flight lead forgot about refueling, which would become the most critical factor of the day. Black Baron 6 (269th Aviation Battalion CO) had taken over as Air Mission Commander, so BH6, Maj Burns came down to lead the flight into the LZ. This act stayed with me for the rest of my Army career. Maj Burns did not have to lead the flight, the C&C usually stayed above the fray directing traffic and monitoring the action. He had already been shot down once that day and came back for more. But here he was, not asking his troops to do anything he won’t do, and demonstrating that to us all. I talked to Joe Burns about this years later, he said the hardest part of being a Commander, was constantly worrying that you were making a decision that would get others killed or injured, it never left your mind.
BB6 had ordered in additional aircraft from our sister unit the 116th AHC (Hornets) and they were in the vicinity, but this was our show and we were determined to complete it. So we boarded our 5 remaining aircraft with the volunteer crews, cranked up and got ready for the extraction. Did I mention, lead forgot to get us refueled? Well upon cranking and reporting in we discovered, we did not have enough fuel to get to the LZ, and back to the PZ, without being in a fuel critical state. Maj Burns wanted BB6 to give us time to refuel, but he didn’t want to wait and ordered the Hornet ships in for the pickup. His decision was correct, the platoon needed to be extracted as soon as possible and not placed in anymore danger due to our stupidity. But it was painful to have to let another unit finish our day for us. It wasn’t about bravery or courage, it was about unit pride and wanting to finish what we started. Plus it was about how we felt towards our comrades in the Manchu’s. I was a sad flight home for us. We were happy they got the infantry out, but it would have been a lot sweeter if WE had gotten the infantry out.
By miracle of miracles, I actually finished the day without a hole in my aircraft, I think I was one of the only ones that escaped damage that day. The Manchu’s used our Officers Club at Tay Ninh and one of the stories they told later about this battle, is that while the last platoon was awaiting pickup, they were down to almost no ammo. In one group all were dead or wounded but one PFC, they gave him all their ammo and grenades. He continued to keep the NVA at bay and when he got down to his last clip, stood up and charged the NVA position, firing all the way. The NVA broke and ran, he returned to his group, helped load the dead and wounded and was extracted. I wish the Manchu CO had posted some figures, but my fading memory recollects that of the last 30 guys in the LZ 16 were killed or wounded.
269th Aviation Battalion Logs
Links to Other Stories About This Action
Telling the Story – by one of the infantry in B/4/9
The Hour Glass – by LTC Henchman
Battle of FSB Burt – 2/22 Website
FSB Burt – Wayne “Crash” Coe, 187th AHC