Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam 1970

Overview

On April 10, 1970, Hill 927 was occupied by troopers of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. By July, the activities of the artillery and infantry of Ripcord had caught the attention of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and a long and deadly siege ensued. Ripcord was the Screaming Eagles’ last chance to do significant damage to the NVA in the A Shau Valley before the division was withdrawn from Vietnam and returned to the United States.

At Ripcord, the enemy ...

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Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam 1970

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Overview

On April 10, 1970, Hill 927 was occupied by troopers of the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. By July, the activities of the artillery and infantry of Ripcord had caught the attention of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and a long and deadly siege ensued. Ripcord was the Screaming Eagles’ last chance to do significant damage to the NVA in the A Shau Valley before the division was withdrawn from Vietnam and returned to the United States.

At Ripcord, the enemy counterattacked with ferocity, using mortar and antiaircraft fire to inflict heavy causalities on the units operating there. The battle lasted four and a half months and exemplified the ultimate frustration of the Vietnam War: the inability of the American military to bring to bear its enormous resources to win on the battlefield. In the end, the 101st evacuated Ripcord, leaving the NVA in control of the battlefield. Contrary to the mantra “We won every battle but lost the war,” the United States was defeated at Ripcord. Now, at last, the full story of this terrible battle can be told.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“AN ABSOLUTELY SUPERB ACCOUNT OF WAR AT THE LEVEL OF THE INDIVIDUAL SOLDIER . . . This is a major contribution to Vietnam War literature, particularly of action at the small-unit level.”
—Military Review

“Keith Nolan’s research, his comprehension of the political as well as the military actions, his careful concern for those who were there, and, most of all, his writing, are superb. I recommend Ripcord without stint or reservation.”
—STEPHEN AMBROSE

“With Ripcord, Keith Nolan has added another significant battle history to his impressive list of works on the Vietnam War.”
—JOHN DEL VECCHIO
Author of The 13th Valley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780891418092
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2003
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 314,379
  • Product dimensions: 4.17 (w) x 6.86 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Keith W. Nolan is acknowledged as the foremost chronicler of the Vietnam War. He is the author of nine other Vietnam War combat histories and is most recently the coauthor of A Hundred Miles of Bad Road. Nolan lives with his wife and daughter near St. Louis, Missouri.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Incoming

The first mortar salvo landed during the usual morning routines on the firebase. Lieutenant Colonel Andre Lucas was still inside his tactical operations center-the TOC-probably with a cup of coffee and the first cigarette of the day in hand as he checked the latest intelligence readouts from division. The ops center, encased in adjoining steel shipping containers known as conexes, each about the size of a small office, was entrenched directly below the top of the hill on the eastern side of Firebase Ripcord.

Major Herbert E. Koenigsbauer, the battalion operations officer, was crossing the small helicopter pad leveled off in front of the TOC. Responsible for base security, Koenigsbauer made the rounds first thing every morning, checking the police call, inspecting the defensive wire, generally touching base with the commanders of the two howitzer batteries on the hill and the infantry company manning the fighting positions around the perimeter.

Koenigsbauer hadn't gone thirty feet that morning when, without warning-the enemy mortar crew was too far away to be heard as it fired, and the whistling descent of the salvo was lost amid the high winds that slapped almost constantly across the firebase-he saw the first round of that first salvo hit the corner of the partially submerged TOC where a tall, two-wheeled aircraft fire extinguisher was parked in case of crashes on the helipad. Even though the command bunker's radio antennas were offset so as not to mark its exact location, the enemy had studied the firebase with binoculars well enough from the surrounding high ground to determine the location of the TOC. The big red fire extinguisher must have stood out as the perfect aiming point.

Koenigsbauer dashed back around the blast wall that protected the entranceway to the operations center as the rest of the salvo came crashing in behind him. Those first five 82mm rounds, which hit at 7:03 a.m. on July 1, 1970, according to the battalion log, barely dented the hard-packed helipad. Ears were ringing inside the command bunker, but it too had been damaged only superficially. Amid the excited exclamations of the staff officers and radiomen on duty, Lucas made an appreciative comment about all the hard work that had gone into the construction of the heavily sandbagged TOC. The battalion commander also wryly observed that if the enemy could hit the TOC with his first round, he undoubtedly had already pinpointed all the other important targets on Ripcord.

Moments later, Capt. Rembert G. Rollison, commanding D/2-506th, the company securing the perimeter, reported by radio that the base was taking automatic-weapons fire and RPGs-hard-hitting rocket-propelled grenades-from a rocky hill only seven hundred meters to the east. The hill, part of the same jungled ridgeline as the hilltop occupied by Ripcord, was separated from the firebase by a shallow draw. Rollison's grunts, surprised that the enemy would engage them in broad daylight but otherwise unintimidated by the fire, rushed to their fighting positions and excitedly returned fire with M16s, M79 grenade launchers, M60 machine guns, and a heavy, tripod-mounted .50-caliber machine gun.

There was a second infantry element on the base, SSgt. Paul E. Burkey's 3d Platoon, C/2-506th. Though the timing now seemed ironic, the platoon had been lifted up the day before in accordance with a new policy that afforded the line platoons an overnight stay on Ripcord on a rotating basis to rest, resupply, and treat the various skin diseases picked up from operating in the jungle.

In short order, the 105mm howitzers of Capt. David F. Rich's B/2-319th and the 155s of Capt. Gordon A. Baxendale's A/2-11th Field Artillery (FA), working from preplotted grids of likely enemy firing positions around the firebase, were booming in answer to the NVA. Ripcord's perimeter was a figure eight in shape; the 105s occupied the top of the higher, wider southeast half of the hill, whereas the 155 battery was set up on a narrow lower tier that rose to a bouldered knoll at the northwest end of Firebase Ripcord.

The enemy drew immensely more fire than he delivered. In addition to the howitzers, the 81mm mortar platoon from E/2-506th, the battalion support company, was pumping out rounds from its gun pits below the TOC. Air support also began to converge over Ripcord as the incoming fire was reported from battalion to brigade to division. Less than fifteen minutes into the action, a Pink Team arrived from the 2-17th Cav, the division's air cavalry squadron. Pink Teams consisted of an OH-6A light observation helicopter (LOH) from the White Platoon of its troop and a Cobra gunship from the Red Platoon. Having been alerted to a mortar on what was from Ripcord the back side of Hill 805, the bouldered peak of which was two kilometers (klicks) southeast of the firebase, the scout ship buzzed down to identify the target and mark it with smoke grenades for the fast-moving Cobra.

The mortar position had been called in by Capt. Thomas T. Hewitt, commanding officer (CO) of C/2-506th, which, except for the platoon on the firebase, was in position atop Hill 902, a prominent terrain feature two and a half klicks southwest of Ripcord. At 7:28 a.m., a two-round salvo wounded one of Rich's cannoneers-the first casualty of the battle-and Hewitt quickly alerted the TOC of another firing position, this one on the back side of a knoll less than a kilometer from the firebase. The mortar was situated as if on an invisible line drawn directly between 902 and Ripcord.

The Pink Team was followed by a fire team of rocket-laden Cobras from the 4-77th Aerial Rocket Artillery (ARA). The division's ARA battalion was responsible for knocking out entrenched targets such as dug-in mortars, whereas minigun-equipped Cobras from the 2-17th Cav usually responded to reports of enemy troops in the open. Moments later, the low-flying LOH from the Pink Team reported a suspected mortar position in a draw one klick southwest of 805 and two klicks southeast of Ripcord. The scout ship banked away sharply, with ice green tracers snapping past from Hill 805.

There was by then an air force forward air controller (FAC) above the battlefield in a little O-1 Bird Dog. The FAC reported a fourth mortar position on a small knoll at the northern base of Hill 902. The FAC, meanwhile, marked targets with white phosphorus (WP) rockets. At the forty-five-minute mark, F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers began laying bombs and napalm canisters (snake 'n nape) on 805 and, given the sniper fire, that part of the ridgeline running southeast from Ripcord toward Hill 805. It was quite a show, and some of the troops on Ripcord broke out their cameras as the jets flashed past in the valley below. The tactical air strikes-tac air, for short-were right on the money, but the Phantoms had no sooner pulled up than the mortar crew under the bombs defiantly lobbed a few more rounds toward Ripcord. Later, two LOHs from a 2-17th Cav White Team went down for another look, only to draw more automatic fire from Hill 805.

It was an old story. The allies had the firepower, but the terrain favored the enemy, who remained mostly unseen under the jungle canopy as they alternated their fire from numerous locations. The key terrain features around Hill 927, atop which Ripcord was built, include Hill 805, situated across a sharp draw from the southeast end of the firebase ridgeline at four o'clock-as viewed from above, with the firebase at the center of the clock-and Hill 1000, a kilometer away at nine o'clock on the same ridge. A small, unnumbered knoll sits between Hill 927 and Hill 1000. The ridge descends behind Hill 1000, then turns southwest and climbs to the top of Hill 1298-Coc Muen Mountain-which dominates the area and is three kilometers from Ripcord at eight o'clock. A major ridgeline descends to the southeast from Coc Muen, with Hill 902 situated along it between six and seven o'clock.

Lieutenant Colonel Lucas was stretched too thinly to occupy all the high ground and before the battle had no reason to be tied down in so defensive a posture. On the morning of July 1, Company D was on Ripcord while A/2-506th secured Firebase O'Reilly, a mutually supporting U. S.-ARVN position seven kilometers northwest on Hill 542. Most of Company C was bivouacked atop Hill 902. Intelligence had earlier predicted the incursion of an NVA battalion in the hills between Ripcord and O'Reilly, and Lucas's remaining maneuver elements-a team from the Reconnaissance Platoon of E/2-506th, B/2-506th, and D/2-501st, which had recently been placed under Lucas's operational control from the division reserve-were deployed to meet that threat.

The enemy concentrated his intermittent fire on Captain Rich's battery on the highest part of Ripcord. First Lieutenant Tore D. Hewlett, the executive officer (XO), and Sfc. Frank J. Rankins, the firing chief, were hit, as were a dozen cannoneers as they loaded and fired the 105s. Though most of the injuries were minor, three men from B/2-319th FA did require helicopter evacuation. Rich, a highly experienced artilleryman, strode among his gun crews under the shelling, keeping their spirits up. As artillery officers were trained to do, he rushed into the smoke of each explosion to inspect the crater and determine where the round had been fired from based on the angle of its impact. The battery commander was twice peppered with shrapnel in the process, but his crater analysis, in coordination with data from the base's countermortar radar, allowed for the placement of extremely accurate fire on the enemy around the firebase. In the first three and a half hours of the shelling, after which it petered out, the enemy managed to put only about thirty rounds in the air, half of which overshot Ripcord.

Captain Hewitt helped adjust the arty from his vantage point atop Hill 902. The gunships and jets also continued to make their runs. It took time, however, to work over each identified enemy position in its turn, and Hewitt's troops, while waiting, put several M60s into action, firing at the mortar directly between their hill and the firebase, and another on the facing slope of Coc Muen, though both were just beyond the weapon's effective range of eleven hundred meters. More realistically, they also targeted the mortar at the northwest base of their hill. The crew down there was popping an occasional round through a small hole in the canopy marked by the smoke ring that would puff through it with each thump of the mortar tube. Some men on that side of the perimeter readied a number of LAWs-single-shot, over-the-shoulder light antitank weapons usually used to blow open bunkers. The first one, aimed skyward to give it a little extra range, arced down into the jungle. It fell short, but the next rocket hit the mark, an expert shot. Though there were no secondary explosions to confirm a direct hit, the mortar ceased firing. The grunts would later come to regret the accuracy of that LAW.

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2012

    Although I'm sure alot of hard work was put into the writing of

    Although I'm sure alot of hard work was put into the writing of this book, I found it hard to get through and a little boring. I would have preferred it being in story form but to each his own. It does describe battle scenes vividly but the book is mostly recollections from the people there and their views and opinions of how things should have gone or of officers in charge and whether or not they lead well. The book seemed to jump from battle of one hill to another and it seemed to me as though a person would drop off the pages and then be mentioned again 50 pages later all of a sudden depending on which hill battle the chapter was about instead of flowing as a story. It seemed as if new people were being mentioned even as late as the last hundred pages. Though I'm sure someone that fought in these battles and alongside these people may find it very interesting to read, I found it hard to be drawn into the book or even follow along.

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  • Posted July 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The Making of a Unit and its men

    This is a very, very good book that manages to take you right in and through real action while leaving you unhurt. It is a mountain battle which tends to flow along natural terrain features but which channelize any other movements into ambush areas and bunkers. There is no better description of an uphill assault in which you are trying to maintain your momentum while struggling uphill with weapons, ammo, and equipment. Study the map overlay to get a good idea of the layout of the valley and the many finger ridges concerned It was easier to maintain an assault along a ridge than be up and down or even trying to cross a valley cross-compartment from one ridge line to another. This book is outstanding in every respect and should be required reading in service academies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2004

    Very well researched.

    Nolan has presented a complicated engagement in a most readable way.This is not your typical 'hero' book. It is a book about real people with all their brass and with all their pimples. If you want to see military engagement in Vietnam as it really was, read this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2003

    Nothing left to the imagination here . . . .

    Keith Nolan's writing style simply leaves nothing to the imagination. In Ripcord, the reader clearly receives a brilliant view of how costly to human life it was to fight a battle and loose the total effort. We need to learn from this compelling and excellent book. It is a must read for anyone, especially for our military leaders in Washington D.C. who need to understand what they are asking our servicemen to do in the current defense posture of half peace, half war.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2003

    Hits Every Aspect of the Vietnam War

    Noland really hits the nail on the head with this military classic. He has every point of view of the battle scence, from generals down to privates. It focuses on a troubled time in America, and how the soldier's acted during that time. The drugs, the fights, and most of all the brotherhood. Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Seige Vietnam 1970 is an excellent title from the Vietnam War. Currahee!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2001

    No BS in This Book!

    Mr. Nolan's very well researched and comprehensive book gives a most excellent picture of the closing days of the Vietnam war. Many people mistakenly believe that because American commitment was waning in 1970-71, the intensity and frequency of combat was also declining. The opposite was much closer to the truth. At the same time the grunts felt abandoned and desperate - after all no one wanted to die in a war the policymakers had totally botched. I was a Company Commander in 1/502nd Infantry, 101st Airborne at this same time and now look back on my experiences and my soldiers with amazement that they were able to prevail and gratitude that they were so damned good. As another commentary states, this book should be required reading in service schools because it very accurately shows how our Army performs under extreme stress and in difficult circumstances. My thanks to Mr. Nolan for telling our story to the world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2000

    A Different View

    I was the S-3 Clerk in the TOC at Camp Evans throughout the Siege at RIPCORD. I never set foot on Ripcord, but after reading Nolan's account feel like I was right in the middle of the battle. . My perspective was somewhat different from most of the combatants. As the S-3 clerk I knew the BN CO and BN S-3 in a more relaxed manner. Unlike the comment Nolan makes that the Battalion CO's officer's knew little about him of a personal nature, he had discussed the fact that he and his wife had married in a church directly across from the church my wife and I had been married in. The S-3 was my immediate boss. I still remember him calmly orchestrating attack gunships,artillery and landing troop carring carriers while seated in the TOC at Evans. A more professional soldier I never saw. One slip and the laws of physics would have had too many objects in one place at one time. He never slipped. Nolan's knowledge of the politics of the Vietnam era help to explain many of the seemingly irrational actions taken by the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) during this stage of the war. If Ambrose is the historian for WWII, then Nolan is the Historian for Vietnam.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2000

    A shocking Revolation

    I was There on Ripcord From the end of May to the 3rd week of July 1970. We were never told how many NVA were out there. The Troops out in the jungle around us all should all have be given the Medal Of Honor. Col. Lucus well you read the book and decide for your selves. I think the book should have had more pictures of the Fire Base. Thanks to Mr Nolan for writing this for us.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2000

    real ism nothing held back

    this was a very thorough from beginning to end story of a military operation from the nam war that was supressed for many years because it was the year after hamburger hill the goverment held back the info it was classified I was there in 1970 i'm glad people are going to know about what happened .

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2000

    We Were Dealt a Bad Hand, and We Played It the Best We Could

    Keith William Nolan has surpassed himself with 'Ripcord.' Easily the most comprehensive and thought-provoking manuscript he has researched and written, 'Ripcord' was also his most challenging undertaking. He does not fail the soldiers who served in this complex and deadly battle, nor will he disappoint the reader. -o- Fire Support Base Ripcord was key to 101st Airborne Division operations in spring and summer 1970. Twice the 2d Battalion, 506th Infantry tried to open the 927-meter high mountain base, and twice they were driven back by determined North Vietnamese regular resistance (March 12 and April 1). Finally, on April 11, C Co., 2d Bn., 506th Inf. secured Ripcord and began constructing what would become known as the division's premier fire base. -o- The North Vietnamese watched, waited, and played a deadly diversionary game at other fire bases (Henderson, Granite, O'Reilly). Spread thinly across their area of operations, the 101st troopers patrolling the rugged triple canopy rain forest did not detect the enemy build-up around Ripcord until it was to late. -o- Surrounded by a division of North Vietnamese regulars, the base came under siege on July 1. The stand-off attack by fire was complemented by vicious close-in combat to control surrounding terrain features--Hill 902 2 kilometers south of Ripcord, Hill 1000 a kilometer west, and Hill 805 2 1/2 klicks southeast. In the end, each of the surrounding redoubts fell, or were abandoned to the enemy. The noose tightened, and the last desperate days of fighting ensued. -o- Ripcord was neither a Dien Bien Phu (where the French lost the First IndoChina War), nor was it a Khe Sanh (where U.S. forces outlasted a determined Gen. Giap in 1968). Ripcord was the second of two book-end battle of the Vietnam War, the first being the action by the 1st Cavalry Division at Ia Drang Valley in 1965. -o- I've provided source material to Nolan for two of his books, and was a company commander at Ripcord. This obvious bias aside, I believe that you'll find 'Ripcord' a necessary addition to your military history collection.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2000

    Surpasses Black Hawk Down

    Because of its graphic and amazingly detailed description of combat, Keith William Nolan's Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, 1970, is destined for comparison with Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, which it equals in narrative quality but surpasses in drama and scope. Both were costly misadventures in doomed endeavors, but the Rangers and Delta Force troopers who died on the streets of Mogadishu, unlike those who died at Firebase Ripcord, hadn't seen the handwriting on the wall. By the time North Vietnamese regiments surrounded Firebase Ripcord in the spring of 1970, U.S. policy-makers, having written Vietnam off as a lost cause, had announced the American troop withdrawal schedule. As the acting artillery liaison officer for the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), I marveled, from the relative safety of a command and control ship, at the heroism displayed by American soldiers who could not have been blamed for feeling abandoned by their country and their higher command. What drove them up the embattled hills surrounding Ripcord in the face of withering fire or sent them scrambling to crew their howitzers in a downpour of incoming mortar rounds? The search for answers to such questions will likely make Nolan's book required reading at the U.S. Army Infantry and Artillery School, but it deserves a broader audience just as the soldiers who defended Ripcord deserved a better war.

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    Posted September 29, 2010

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    Posted August 29, 2009

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    Posted August 23, 2012

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    Posted October 19, 2011

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