The Viet Nam War's biggest battle took place in the 1972 "Easter Offensive". America was withdrawing it forces from the war zone. The Americans that were left to do battle were advisors and airmen: Army helicopters, Navy Air flying from the carriers and Air Force planes with their full armada of destructive firepower.
In the Spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese Army launched a major offensive with fourteen Infantry Divisions and twenty-six separate Regiments supported by long range Russian artillery and 1200 armored vehicles and tanks. The enemy force was 150,000 strong. In the Central Highlands, three Divisions plus separate regiments were in the attack. I was the lone American Advisor to the Vietnamese 11th Airborne Battalion. The paratroopers were tasked to block the most critical mountain pass (designated Fire Base "Charlie") to the Central Highlands.
The 320th Division plus artillery and anti-aircraft units were tasked to take Charlie and destroy opposing forces before advancing on Kontum City in the Central Highlands. The paratroopers were out numbered 10 to 1 in the battle.
Of the 471 men committed, I came out after two weeks of intense battle with 36 survivors, most of them had been wounded.
Note: Translation and poetic license help tell the story of the battle for Fire Base "Charlie".
Know the soldier's call,
Hear the order clear,
Into combat now!
Kill or find an end.
Call forth the courage.
Be prepared to die.
Remember life's gifts-
Then you can survive.
Why have they lingered?
I do not know.
They should have retreated;
Now they will die.
Do they not know better,
What is the reason?
They are caught between us
And certain death.
The dark would have hidden them,
Allowing them to escape,
Who didn't give the command
For them to withdraw?
Let them eat breakfast,
For it will be their last.
The bunkers they are in
Will soon be their tombs.
(Doctor To Pham Lieu,
Cross of Gallantry w/Palm)
The Doc has been shot at.
Oh, Lord! He has his gun out,
Sighting, Aiming, and Shooting
At a cannon with a forty-five.
He is hit and down,
But not for long,
Back up again,
Sighting, Aiming, Shooting.
Trying to knock out a cannon
With his forty-five.
God, isn't he ridiculous?
But he has courage.
The Commander's Burial
(Colonel Nguyen Dinh Bao)
We wrap him in a poncho,
Even his dismembered legs.
He knew that he was dying,
And he spoke his last words.
"Tell my wife I loved her true.
Tell my children to remember me.
Tell my paratroopers to never surrender.
You, my officers, one final salute."
He lays in a shallow grave alone;
No bugles, no farewell rifle salute,
Only a few shovels of red earth.
His grave is marked with his helmet.
He fought bravely until the end.
He fought against heavy odds.
He has fought his last battle.
With his glory, we leave him.
It must be me
They're shooting at.
That's the third time
I have been blown up.
It's the radio
They have spotted.
They know I'm talking
To the planes above.
I have to keep moving,
Hoping they don't see me.
Keep moving and talking
To the planes above.
They are in low and hot;
Dropping big bombs and nape,
Making the enemy shudder
And convulse, before his end.
Blown up, wounded, deafened,
But never fearful,
The godless enemy came forward,
Knowing well how to die.
The battle raged back and forth.
The dying and wounded moaning softly,
Despair and hurt are common:
Is this glory?
Attack and counter-attack,
To and fro this battle rages.
Brave soldiers dying on both sides,
Only the righteous know why.
The Machine Gunner
They are coming forward.
"Hold the trenches!'
"Set up that weapon!"
"Don't fall back!"
The bastard is still pulling back-
Shooting between his legs.
Fear and reality flash into his eyes,
He turns and faces his enemy.
Machine-gun down and bolt back:
Look at them die.
It's an inferno:
Smoke, dust and flame,
Shred a moment's stillness.
Soldiers running fast,
Away from the flashes,
Trying to escape:
Afraid of death.
The smell of battle,
Choking smoke and dust,
Life's last moments
Caught in an explosion.
Night's darkness will come,
In but a short time.
Perhaps some will live,
Fleeing into the shadows.
They keep coming forward.
Twice we have stopped them
With a murderous fire.
They still keep coming.
The troopers are pulling back,
Out of ammunitions and frightened.
It is just the deadly planes-
Holding the enemy wave back.
Only a few more minutes,
And darkness will be here.
They will attack before then.
That will be the end.
Retreat and escape,
Before it's too late.
The orders are given:
We prepare to break-out.
My eyes have been blinded.
I am stumbling in the dark.
I cannot see anything,
Slipping down a jungle path.
I am in water now.
Damn! It's over my head.
Let me drink deep,
While I have the chance.
I'll tread my way out of here,
Up onto a jungle path,
And walk myself
Away from here.
I've been moving many hours,
Guided by a young trooper's hand.
Once buried by the panicked herd,
When friendlies bombarded us.
That hill was straight up:
Made it on my hands and knees.
But coming down now,
Sliding fast on my ass.
Stepped on the Doc then.
I still can't see worth a damn,
But wait: I see trees and the sky,
A new dawn is here.
The young green troopers panic;
Running away from the sound of fire.
Down toward the stream and death,
Where the killing guns draw blood.
I chamber a round and click my safety off.
My radio is dead, hit by AK-47 gunfire.
At least that will lighten my load on the run.
I gather the paratroopers nearby: "Follow me!"
Break away! The path of least resistance.
Move fast! Don't get caught in the panic.
Move quick! Go, go, keep moving!
The veterans are still with you.
I takes time to kill the bunched herd;
Time needed to break-out,
Shooting when necessary,
But always moving quickly.
Snipers on the hilltops,
Trying to channelize movement.
Their aim is high.
Far enough now, quiet!
Stop! Everyone must be quiet!
Security: Set a perimeter, but hold fire!
My survival radio operating...contact.
"Covey, this is Dusty, I require a lift package,
Thirty seven with some wounded. Over."
"Roger Dusty, 4 ships for thirty seven.
Stand-by Dusty, I'll try to rustle them up. Out."
This poem is focused on Dallas Nihsen's death, not only as part of the story, but as a tribute to him and all the herioc door-gunners who served in the war.
Crew Chiefs End
(Crew Chief Dallas Nihsen, KIA)
(Major Hai Doan, WIA)
(Pilots, Major "Mike" Gibbs (Silver Star)
& WO Dennis Watson (Distinguished Flying Cross))
Three lifts loaded and off.
It is our bird coming in fast.
The gunfire is picking up.
The enemy knows we are escaping.
On approach the pilot takes heavy gunfire,
He circles, and is coming back in.
Touchdown, enemy fire riddles the ship.
We're running fast and scramble aboard.
We are lifting off and flying,
Flying away from a jungle battle.
Major Hai's foot is shattered,
By a fifty-one caliber bullet.
The Crew Chief is hit and hanging,
Held in the aircraft by his tetter.
He's unconcious and needs help.
I climb to his side of the aircraft.
I drag him back into the helicopter.
He's hit just above his chicken plate,
A clean wound that needs patching.
I apply my bandage to his wound.
I turn him over and find the exit wound.
It is big and it is still bubbling.
I'll quick patch and stop the bleeding.
The bubbles stop before I am finished.
TRIBUTE: A highway in Oaks, Indiana was named after Dallas Nihsen and a Gold Star was presented to his Dad at the ceremony.
The Commanders Family
(Colonel Nguyen Dinh Bao Memorial Service)
Can you picture the scene:
Incense burning, banners hung, casket draped.
The moans and the weeping blend,
Sorrow hangs in the atmosphere.
The Commander's comrades gathered,
To offer their last salute.
The young widow strong at first,
But soon sorrow overcomes her.
It is not the smoke which tears my eyes,
Although I have lit seven joss sticks.
The words are spoken for all to hear.
Now, it is I who must say the last
I will say the truth, and how he died:
"He died leading the paratroopers he loved."
"He died fighting for the freedom he cherished."
"He died a hero of his country."
Note: Colonel Bao was decorated and promoted after the battle for Charlie.
At his funeral, attended by his officers, to include this Advisor, his casket was empty, he remained on the battlefield, where he fell.
The author was honored with the award of the "Distinguished Service Cross" for actions with the 11th Airborne Battalion, the citation:
AWARD OF THE DISTINGUISHED SERVICE CROSS
For extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam: Major Duffy distinguished himself while serving as the Senior Advisor, 11th Airborne Battalion, Airborne Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam at Fire Support Base Charlie, Kontum Province, Republic of Vietnam during the period 14 and 15 April 1972. Beginning with the morning of the 14th and continuing for a period of approximately twenty-four hours, Major Duffy repeatedly made heroic contributions to the defense of the fire base. When attempts at resupplying the base were still being considered,
Major Duffy exposed himself to the effects of the continuous bombardment the base experienced as he targeted anti-aircraft weapons and adjusted airstrikes on them. When the resupply attempts were abandoned Major Duffy moved about the base, continuing to expose himself to the enemy fire, treating and finding shelter for wounded Vietnamese defenders. During the early evening initial ground assault, Major Duffy ignored the massive small arms fire as he adjusted gunships and artillery on the advancing enemy formations. When the enemy finally gained control of a portion of the base and advanced to within ten meters of his position, Major Duffy was the last man off the base, remaining behind to adjust the covering gunships until the last possible moment. After the Battalion Commander was wounded, Major Duffy assumed command and lead the formation through the night. Finally, when the battalion was ambushed and the unwounded soldiers abandoned their wounded comrades, Major Duffy remained with the wounded and eventually was able to arrange for their extraction. Major Duffy's conspicuous gallantry in action was in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.
In the aftermath of the battle for Firebase "Charlie", an award winning book was written about the battle, "The Red Flames of Summer" by Nam Nhat Phan, and a song was composed by Tran Thanh, "The Ones who stayed at Charlie". This is a weak effort at interpretation of that song (Translation: Le Van Me & John J. Duffy). The bodies of the fallen were left where they fell in battle. This song is still sung by Vietnamese to lament their fallen warriors.
The Ones Who Stayed At "Charlie"
(Nguoi O lai Charlie)
Oh you! The ones who stayed at "Charlie".
Oh you! The ones who died in battle.
Yes, you are the nations newest heroes.
You were the bravest of the brave.
We mourn your passing with sorrow.
Yes you, the ones who stayed at "Charlie".
Oh yes, you are now with heaven's angels.
Oh yes, you are a warrior returning home.
Only now we cry our tears of sorrow.
The day you departed, you said "Goodbye".
You left your home one last time.
Your footfalls are no longer heard.
Your absence is felt by all of us.
We mourn you with white headbands.
Your lonely children cry in sadness.
Your widow dreams of you at night.
We know the names of Dak To, Krek, Snoul,
windy Khe Sanh, and the moonlite Laos.
"Charlie" is not a Vietnamese name place.
Oh you, you stayed at "Charlie",
Just stayed at "Charlie".
"Charlie", we didn't know that name before.
You, you, will you miss the monsoon rains?
You, you, will you remember the colors of the forest?
Oh! Have you arrived at your distination?
Forever! We will love you forever!
My warrior who will not return,
I say one more time, one more time,
I say goodbye to you on "Charlie".
I say one more time, one more time,
I say goodbye to you on "Charlie".
I will remember you forever
As I talk to my warrior gone to heaven.
When I was a Private,
I liked to read a lot.
It was a pleasant way
To pass the time away.
Then I became a Sergeant,
And I studied my profession,
Taking pride in the ways
I knew to kill other men.
Soon I became a Lieutenant,
Becoming very serious
About my new responsibilities,
Trying to know all things.
When the war at last came,
I was wearing Captain's bars,
And fully confident
Of all I thought I knew.
I guess I did well:
Not having gone to Hell.
They promoted me Major,
Before the war was through.
I begin to wonder
Why I still soldier.
Since the war has stopped,
I like to read a lot.
The End Of The Viet Nam War:
Vietman, Spring of '75
Khe Sanh, Quang Tri,
The provinces fall...
Where I have fought.
Four years fighting;
Watching friends die,
Awaiting my moment,
Learning not to smile.
Now it seems in vain,
As the provinces fall,
Only Tay Ninh remains
Of where I've fought.
The rest soon fall.
New flags wave high
Over old citadels:
The new order marches.
White flags are waving
In the streets of Phnom Penh.
The city has fallen
To the new red order.
Yesterday's rulers fled,
Taking their booty -
Escaping from the smoke
Of the burning city.
The peasants no longer
Laugh as in times gone by -
Now they carry guns:
Looking hard-eyed and grim.
The revolution has born
This new aristocrat:
An illiterate farmer
From Mekong paddy fields.
Escape From Viet Nam:
Colonel Le Van Me
(Awarded: Cross of Gallanty w/Palm,
His Nations Highest Award for Valor)
Le Van Me became an officer.
Learning all that was needed
To survive and lead soldiers
In the war that ravaged Viet Nam.
He found his love and married.
Soon, he began a family.
He had a son and two daughters,
Hoping he would live to see them grow.
He fought in the battles,
Surviving when others died.
In time, he commanded the best,
Paratroopers wearing the red beret.
His deeds became legend.
He was the commander who fought,
And never suffered defeat,
Always standing, while others fell.
But, the day Saigon fell,
He had to make his choice.
Flight and freedom he sought,
Risking all in the open sea's.
Escape From Viet Nam
The new masters know terror:
The terror of retribution,
The terror of hopelessness,
The terror of life in fear.
Colonel Le Van Me must flee.
His family is his hope,
For he no longer commands.
His Viet Nam is in defeat.
He commandeers a boat -
His family is loaded aboard,
Refugees on the high sea's,
Fleeing the storm of terror.
No water, no food, only hope,
Hope that they will escape,
Hope for freedom without chains,
Hope for a new beginning.
The boat is open decked,
It soon runs out of fuel.
The sea's swamp the bottom
With foul salty water.
Their plight is desperate.
The children are thirsty and tired,
The nights are cold and very wet.
All are full of hopeless despair.
Six days without rescue -
Until off the Philippines,
A warship picks them up..
And hope's flame burns again.
The New Americans
It is time to begin anew.
It is time to begin the future.
"We will not linger here."
"We'll go anywhere you say."
With three young children
And a very pregnant wife,
Colonel Le Van Me departs
On the "Freedom Bird" of hope.
Thousands have fled Viet Nam.
The camp is in Arkansas,
At an old Army base,
They receive a "Welcome Kit".
The baby is soon born.
Le Van Me looks at the mountains,
They are east, on the horizon:
They are the Ozark Mountains.
He says: "My son is American,
He will be named as such."
To honor my new country,
"We'll call him Ozark Le."
Almost forty years have gone by
Since the fall of Saigon.
The images are of defeat,
Frozen in a photograph.
Desperate people gaining entry
To the Embassy grounds,
And flight from the rooftop -
One helicopter at a time.
The pilots crashing their planes
Near the evacuation ships,
Hoping for rescue and freedom,
Against the fear of retribution.
The victorious enemy tanks
Crashing through the Palace gates,
Raising the flag of the North
Over the citizens of the South.
The exodus never stopped,
The flight was always desperate.
The Vietnamese freedom lovers
Sought escape to other lands.
More than three million did flee,
In boats, over open sea's.
Some were set upon by pirates,
Others, by the bureaucrats of freedom.
But, an escape, many achieved.
And as a foreigner, in a new land,
They worked as opportunity allowed.
These were the refugee's of Viet Nam.
Now, many years later,
Settled in their new countries,
Established, and many successful,
They look toward the future.
The future is their children,
Now educated and employed.
They are the new society,
Blending some old with the new.
The NVA keep pushing forward.
The ammo situation is critical.
The paratroopers are pulling back.
Our time is fast running out.
The decisions are made quick:
Break-out to the northeast,
I'll use gunships to cover,
While we disengage and run.
Colonel Le Van Me is at my side.
He is my back-up and my cover.
We are as a team in battle,
And this may be our last battle.
I had been working the gunships.
Ever closer the enemy advanced.
They were sixty meters distance -
When "Cougar" lead blasted them away.
The "Panther" gunships were now in.
They broke the next enemy attack.
The NVA reform and push forward.
"Panther" flight blasts them away again.
"Panther Lead, this is Dusty Cyanide,
You have broken the enemy attack."
"We are leaving Fire Base Charlie, now."
"Stop them from following us!"
The "Panther" gunships did havoc.
We moved away from the battle,
Escaping from a certain death,
Bloodied, but not yet broken.