Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds

Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds

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by Philip Keith
     
 

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Fire Base Illingworth is an epic, never-before-told true story of a North Vietnamese Army attack and how the men of this nearly overrun Fire Base survived.

In the early morning hours of April 1, 1970, more than four hundred North Vietnamese soldiers charged out into the open and tried to over-run FSB Illingworth. The battle went on, mostly in the dark,

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Overview

Fire Base Illingworth is an epic, never-before-told true story of a North Vietnamese Army attack and how the men of this nearly overrun Fire Base survived.

In the early morning hours of April 1, 1970, more than four hundred North Vietnamese soldiers charged out into the open and tried to over-run FSB Illingworth. The battle went on, mostly in the dark, for hours. Exposed ammunition canisters were hit and blew up, causing a thunderous explosion inside the FSB that left dust so thick it jammed the hand-held weapons of the GIs. Much of the combat was hand-to-hand. In all, twenty-four Americans lost their lives and another fifty-four were wounded. Nearly one hundred enemy bodies were recovered. It was one of the most vicious small unit firefights in the history of U.S. forces in Vietnam.

As in his acclaimed book Blackhorse Riders, a finalist for the prestigious Colby Award, Phil Keith uncovers a harrowing true story of bravery and sacrifice by the men who fought valiantly to hold FSB Illingworth—a tale never-before-told and one that will not be soon forgotten.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As he did in 2012’s Blackhorse Riders, former Navy aviator and Vietnam vet Keith tells a harrowing tale that centers on an exhausted, ragtag group of U.S. Army troops as they fought for their lives against a 400-man North Vietnamese Army regiment in a vicious engagement in 1970. The action described in the previous book took place on March 26; what Keith chronicles in this follow-up is a disastrous fight that played out in the early morning hours of April 1 at a remote firebase near the Cambodian border. Fifty-four Americans were wounded in the melee (which included hand-to-hand combat) and 25 perished—a casualty rate of nearly 40%. As the subtitle indicates, this is a paean to the American soldiers who fought that little-known battle—men Keith calls “brave warriors.” The heart of the book is a virtually minute-by-minute description of the fighting, fleshed out with some reconstructed dialogue, and based on two years of research that included interviews the author conducted with many of the American survivors. 8-page b&w photo insert and 1 map. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber Associates. (Oct. 29)
From the Publisher

“A harrowing tale that centers on an exhausted, ragtag group of U.S. Army troops as they fought for their lives against a 400-man North Vietnamese Army regiment in a vicious engagement in 1970. The heart of the book is a virtually minute-by-minute description of the fighting.” —Publishers Weekly

“Impressive verisimilitude and . . . moment-by-moment accuracy. A respectful account of a battle that was 'a perfect microcosm of what the Vietnam War was becoming in the early days of Vietnamization.'” —Kirkus

“A fascinating and detailed study of strategic intentions, operational planning, and tactical execution from a critical time period of the Vietnam War. Phil Keith has added, in dramatic detail, the personal sacrifices of brave warriors in this hellacious fight at LZ Illingworth in the late years of the Vietnam War—experiences that have not been adequately documented to date. They remain as relevant for the war fighters of today as those who endured the drama of close combat over 40 years ago. In the spirit of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, this book fittingly honors their actions for the ages—both collectively and individually.” —Alexander S. Cochran, Professor of History, University of New Mexico; Vietnam veteran and former historical adviser to the Army Chief of Staff

“In relating the events at Fire Base Illingworth, Phil Keith has captured the essence of combat from first hand accounts of those soldiers who experienced it. The reader can sense the fear, the confusion, the bravery which hung over these men on that awful day in 1970, and which continue to haunt many of them to this day. Fire Base Illingworth can rightly take its place alongside such Vietnam War classics as Fields of Fire and We Were Soldiers Once and Young.” —Captain Thomas G. Kelley, USN (Ret.), Vietnam Veteran, Medal of Honor recipient

“A wonderful tribute to Jack Illingworth—and for all men and women who died or spilled blood in the Vietnam War. Phil Keith has done an outstanding job of researching and then recounting the heroic efforts of the ingenuity and adapting to conditions that were unforeseen or unpredictable in the "Vietnamization of the war." No matter what the grand strategy is of any conflict, it always comes down to the individual and the way individuals function and are lead. A vivid picture of how leadership is able to shape and determine victory from the inside out—this is a spectacular work that is made from the rich fabric of human brilliance (on both sides) stitched together in the way only a master storyteller can do. A must-read for anyone wanting to better understand Vietnam and how things really were on the ground—and how we ultimately left without victory.” —Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (Ret.), New York Times bestselling author of Operation Dark Heart

“An incredible story—one in which high command deliberately sets as bait deep inside enemy territory near the Cambodian border an undermanned and inadequately fortified fire base composed of a lash-up of disparate units that had never before worked together. The result was a twentieth century Alamo waiting to happen. Philip Keith's meticulous research and powerful narrative skills are at their peak in this extraordinary story of horror and heroism in the jungles of Vietnam—a story I could not put down until I had finished it.” —Dwight Jon Zimmerman, New York Times bestselling co-author of Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq

“Told with some reconstructed dialogue, the book chronicles the fighting minute by minute.” —VVA Veteran

Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-15
The propulsive history of American soldiers under siege in the last days of the Vietnam War. Keith (Blackhorse Riders: A Desperate Last Stand, an Extraordinary Rescue Mission, and the Vietnam Battle America Forgot, 2012), a decorated veteran of three tours in Vietnam, explains that by 1970, as part of Nixon's "Vietnamization" strategy to conclude the war, lightly fortified "fire support bases" were increasingly positioned to lure the North Vietnamese Army into mounting cross-border attacks from Cambodia. At FSB Illingworth, a hodgepodge of ill-equipped infantry and artillery units, along with a cavalry unit with inoperable tanks, were well-aware that the FSB had not been moved in far too long; in effect, the luckless soldiers were being used as bait. Their suspicions proved correct during a massive pre-dawn NVA assault, which Keith depicts with precise chronology and gruesome detail. The author highlights both the bravery of individual soldiers and the impractical planning that pervaded the conflict. He suggests that the battle's survivors still feel they were treated shabbily by the command structure: "They do not see their victory as an accomplishment, except in terms of making it out alive." Yet, to the officers behind the confrontational strategy, the few-dozen casualties were deemed " ‘acceptable' if the action had destroyed the enemy's capability to conduct operations in this sector." But Keith also claims that news of the engagement traveled far up the chain of command. His extensive research produces impressive verisimilitude, and the moment-by-moment accuracy of his battle re-enactment makes up for occasional purple prose--e.g., "the entire company…were on the hot seat again, and the NVA was turning up the flames." A respectful account of a battle that was "a perfect microcosm of what the Vietnam War was becoming in the early days of Vietnamization."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781250024961
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
10/29/2013
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
148,730
File size:
4 MB

Read an Excerpt


1
 
 
THE TRAP IS BAITED
It was quiet, but it wouldn’t be for long. Lt. Col. Mike Conrad, commanding officer of the 2/8, and the senior officer commanding at FSB Illingworth, knew the NVA were out there. His ground surveillance radar had found them stacked up and swarming in the tree line, and they would come boiling out of the jungle and attempt to overrun his undermanned and vulnerable position as soon as they felt ready. That would be just about any moment. He knew he’d get a warning, though—maybe a few minutes—before the assault began. The NVA were experienced, tough, capable, and far from stupid. They’d begin by pounding the bejesus out of Conrad’s base with mortars, rockets, recoilless rifles, and whatever artillery they might have been able to drag through the woods and place behind their front lines. They would soften up the Americans before blowing their bugles and charging Conrad’s works.
It was 0217, April 1, 1970. Every man on the fire base, about 220 of them, had been woken up in anticipation of an attack. Conrad had demanded that every officer and every sergeant make sure that every man was awake and alert. The “Pipsy-5”1 antipersonnel radar that Conrad and his men had deployed to scour their perimeter had initially picked up strong movement right before midnight, especially in the jungle area facing the southwest corner of their pitifully small berm. Conrad did not hesitate. He ordered the Cobra gunships he had standing by to zoom in and rake the tree lines. They unloaded salvo after salvo of rockets and ripped the foliage with their miniguns. Artillery from nearby firebases like FSB Hannas, FSB St. Barbara, and Camp Hazard opened up on the preprogrammed coordinates they had carefully calculated, aiming points designed to support FSB Illingworth. Conrad also unleashed his own .50 cal machine guns and whatever M-60s were available, and all guns poured fire directly into the trees ahead.
No response came back toward Conrad’s lines, however, and after a few minutes, the firing of the defenders slowed to a stop. Rotor blades flicked away in the night sky, their sounds becoming faint as they sped away to refuel and resupply. The throaty cannons and mortars fell silent, too. Machine-gun barrels glowed, and the smell of warm gun oil wafted on the night air. The grunts put their personal weapons back on “safe.” It became eerily quiet. After a few minutes the night sounds returned. Crickets recommenced their chirping; a monkey screeched in the trees. Within the lines, the men nervously began the never-ending process of wiping down and reloading their weapons. They relaxed—as much as they could given the tension swirling around them. A number of them decided to catch a few z’s. Those who could sleep did so in place, boots on, heads resting on helmets or other equally uncomfortable, makeshift pillows.
Colonel Conrad cautiously stepped out from his TOC (tactical operations center) and peered into the blackness. With his RTO (radio telephone operator) at his side he decided to walk the perimeter—again. It would be one more sweep of the interior lines, just to be sure that he and his men had done everything humanly possible to be ready.
A thousand things were racing through Conrad’s brain. Uppermost in his thoughts was the fact that as bad as their situation had become, it was exactly what his bosses had wanted it to be. His men were being used as lures, very expensive and vulnerable lures, to draw out the NVA and get them to expose themselves. It had worked, that was for sure, and since it had, Conrad’s job had morphed into keeping the lures from being swallowed whole. It wasn’t going to be easy.
After his last stroll Conrad returned to the TOC. He decided to lie down and try to catch a few precious moments of sleep. He would not get very much rest. About an hour later, after tossing around miserably on his cot, he was wide awake. At 0217, somewhere out in the inky blackness, he heard them: faint whistles followed by the barking of artillery. Conrad leapt from his rack and tried to race outside. Bad move—he was forced to dive back into the TOC as sheets of steel rained down on his post. The explosions ripped the night sky apart and enveloped the entire compound in deadly shards of red-hot metal.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Philip Keith

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Meet the Author

PHILIP KEITH became a naval aviator after graduating from Harvard. During three tours in Vietnam, he was awarded, among other decorations, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Air Medal for Gallantry, the Purple Heart, and the Navy Commendation Medal. Keith is also the author of Blackhorse Riders, which was awarded the USA Book Award for Military History. He lives in Southampton, Long Island.


PHILIP KEITH became a naval aviator after graduating from Harvard. During three tours in Vietnam he was awarded, among other decorations, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Air Medal for Gallantry, the Purple Heart, and the Navy Commendation Medal. Keith is also a columnist for the Southampton Press and a feature writer for magazines. He lives in Southampton, Long Island.

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