On 13 May, 1969, the men of C Company were combat assaulted into a hot landing zone near the South Vietnamese village of Tam Ky. Their objective was to take Nui Yon Hill. As the Hueys carrying C Company began to descend, they were hit by heavy enemy fire. Once the U.S. soldiers had their boots on the ground, they became embroiled in a fierce two-day battle that claimed the lives of twelve Charlie Tigers. This is the compelling story of that battle told by the men who were there.
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Tam KyThe Battle for Nui Yon Hill
By Thomas Pozdol
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Thomas Pozdol
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Chapter One12 May 1969: Sappers Inside the Wire
In times of war, it is desirable to be led by a cautious and humane general -The I Ching
The last quarter of the waning moon reflected off the eyes of the figure silently crouching behind a bush at the base of Hill 348. A sliver of moonlight bounced back at him off the razor wire that encircled the perimeter at the top of the hill. As 11 May 1969 slowly, quietly passed into May 12, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier's hands began to sweat as he waited for the order to attack. A bag of grenades was slung over his shoulder.
At the top of Hill 348, there was an American fire support base known as LZ Center. Most of the U.S. soldiers on LZ Center were asleep in their bunkers that night. A few stood guard around the perimeter as the lone figure with the bag of grenades and his comrades began to creep up the side of the hill. It was a little after midnight, and their slow, methodical ascent would take well over an hour.
Around 0137 hours, Lieutenant James Wojczynski stepped outside the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) bunker on LZ Center. Known as Lt. Ski, he had arrived in Vietnam in August 1968. He was assigned to C (Charlie) Company as its 1st Platoon leader. In January 1969, he was promoted toexecutive officer (XO) of C Company. After a few months, he was assigned to the battalion as an S-3 officer. His duties, along with another officer, were to coordinate the movements of the battalion's five line companies, plot night laager sites, and log in ambush sites. They would also monitor artillery and air strikes, making sure no one got caught in a friendly fire situation because of bad coordinates.
In ancient Vietnamese culture, the waning moon was a time of peace and the replenishing of one's strength. However, as Lt. Ski stood outside the TOC bunker, that peaceful night exploded into the reality of war as enemy mortar fire fell inside the perimeter. Looking east toward the S-4 end of the hill, Lt. Ski saw that enemy sappers had penetrated that end of LZ Center. The NVA sappers were throwing satchel charges and grenades into some of the bunkers. There were also rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) teams targeting bunkers with antennas on the south end of the hill. Immediately, he ran into the TOC bunker and sounded the siren. He then called the battalion commanding officer (CO), LTC Brandenburg, and told him dinks were in the wire, to which the CO commented, "Are you sure?"
The 196th Brigade logs show that the attack started with about ten mortar rounds. This was then followed by AK-47 fire and RPG rounds. This attack took place around the S-4 and 4.2 mortar positions on the north side of the hill. It appears that the gunners were targeting the antennas on top of the 4.2 bunkers. The report goes on to state that three bunkers were damaged by RPG rounds, three by satchel charges, one 4.2 mortar tube damaged by grenades and one three-quarter-ton truck damaged by an RPG round. It is believed that ten sappers had gotten inside the wire on the northeast end of the perimeter.
The GIs on LZ Center eventually rallied and pushed the intruders off the hill by 0255 hours. Artillery was processed on the suspected enemy mortar positions with unknown results, and four NVA were engaged with small-arms fire, resulting in four NVA killed. According to the brigade logs the following equipment was captured: one B41 rocket launcher, one AK 50, twenty Chicom grenades, three AK-47 magazines, one Soviet RG42, and one Soviet F-1 grenade. Also found were a pair of wire cutters and twenty to thirty propaganda leaflets.
At 0330, the first dustoff (medevac) arrived and started to take the wounded to field hospitals. The troops on LZ Center had suffered twenty-four WIA and two KIA. Lt. Ski remembered seeing three or four dinks wearing loincloths and neck scarves and carrying bags of grenades lying dead inside the wire near the north/northeast end of the hill.
That night, C Company was laagered southeast of LZ Center around BT161266. This would have placed the company not far from LZ East (BT132203). As they began to stir that morning to the rattle of canteen cups and the opening of C rations, a rumor began to spread that LZ Center had been overrun. Since most of the men in C Company were already seasoned by a deadly month-long operation at a place called Tien Phouc, this rumor was only partially believed. Rumors in the military were never totally believed or totally disbelieved. Since C Company had just come off of LZ Center a few days earlier, it was a little unnerving to think that there had been sappers inside the wire. Regardless of the validity of the rumor, there was business at hand that needed to be taken care of, and that was to conduct searches in an area from coordinates BT098256 to BT118267. If there had been a ground attack on LZ Center, this could be a bad omen for the line company. It was best to put that in the back of the mind. There had been increased enemy activity in the area the past few days. Fortunately, that day presented no out-of-the-ordinary problems as C Company patrolled its area of responsibility.
As the men were setting up their night laager site late that afternoon, I was called to the company command post (CP) for a briefing. My name is Thomas Pozdol. I arrived in Nam on 28 January 1969. I had taken over the first squad around 15 April 1969, from Glen Lawson. At that time, I was promoted from SP-4 to the temporary grade of sergeant, more commonly known as an acting sergeant or AJ (acting jack). After the briefing was over, SFC Paul Ikeda, who had just taken over the 1st Platoon from Lieutenant James Gordon, called me to the platoon CP to give me my instructions for the next day. The 1st Squad, 1st Platoon was to walk company point the next morning to an area out in the flatlands a few kilometers away. Walking point was one of the most dangerous jobs in Nam; walking company point was one of the most dreaded. A pace had to be set by the point squad so that a company of sometimes over a hundred men walking in column could follow without getting too spread out or bunching together. On this day, the company duty roster showed that C Company had one hundred and twenty-seven men. This does not reflect exactly how many men were actually in the field that day. Due to a shortage of manpower attributed to many factors, it has been estimated that Charlie Company had about eighty-nine men in the bush that morning. It was the responsibility of the pointman and the point squad to be in contact with the CO at all times to make sure the move went according to plans. If flanking units were sent out, which was sometimes done in the flatlands, the move became even move complicated. About dusk, I got back to the 1st Squad. I told PFC Ron Kociba that he would walk point the next day.
Ron Kociba had gotten to Nam in early February 1969. He was from Flushing, Michigan. Ron and I had survived the operation at Tien Phouc as greenseeds (new guys) and started walking point at about the same time near the end of that operation. We had also adopted a similar philosophy toward making close friendships in the bush-that was not to make any close friends in the bush. If someone in the company got killed, it hurt, but if a close friend got killed, it hurt too much. It was better not to get hurt too much. There had been nine KIA during the operation at Tien Phouc in March of 1969, and that was painful.
Ron was an intelligent man. He learned quickly and never complained. He was not afraid to speak his mind but was thoughtful in doing so. He was unlike me, who had a tendency to be impulsive. This combination often worked well for us in the field. Ron would offer insights into my decision-making process that I sometimes overlooked. Our learning curve was about the same, only we approached things in different ways. Having arrived in Nam at about the same time, we experienced many of the same things together. One of the difficulties of being a new soldier in Vietnam was that old-timers often gave greenseeds the cold shoulder. Fortunately, our squad leader, Glen Lawson, allowed us the time to develop together and at the same pace. Glen treated us like soldiers, not as fumbling newbies. Even though we kept many of our feelings inside, it was good to have someone there who was going through the same thing. Now with Lawson's absence, I was in charge. Ron accepted this and respected my decision-making process. I never sensed this from Freeman or Wolfrum, who had been in the squad longer. They accepted me as their squad leader, but I had the feeling they never completely trusted my decision making. During the Vietnam War, this lack of trust often stemmed from the ill-fated policy of rotating individual soldiers rather than complete units that were trained together. Since Ron and I had more or less trained together, there was a certain bond of trust.
After giving Ron his instructions for the following day, I grabbed my map and compass. PFC John Kwasniak had first guard duty and was already in the foxhole we had dug earlier. I pulled my poncho liner over my head. Then, I sat at the bottom of the foxhole, turned on a flashlight, and went over the map. I used the compass to try to get my bearings straight for the long walk ahead of us the next day. A half hour later, feeling confident that I knew where we'd be going the next day, I crawled out of the hole to get in some sack time. Kwasniak was still watching the perimeter. A short time later, at 2010 hours, the sound of out-going M-79 rounds woke me. I asked John what was going on. He told me that a squad on the other side of the perimeter had spotted some moving lights and fired at them. I went back to sleep.
Twenty-five percent of the total forces in Vietnam were draftees. Charlie Company was made up of 66 percent draftees. John Kwasniak was drafted in Chicago, Illinois, and arrived in Vietnam in early January 1969. He carried an M-79 for the 1st Squad. One disadvantage of a citizen army is that occasionally someone is assigned to duties that he is not cut out to do. John would have made an excellent clerk or mechanic, but he was not a field soldier. He was one of those men you had to keep an eye on at all times. This did create difficulties for other members of the squad, especially since we never had enough personnel in the bush to be a truly effective fighting unit.
The 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry was activated from a reserve unit on 15 September 1965, and assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (LIB). In 1966, the 196th LIB was sent to the III Corps area of South Vietnam. Once there, the brigade participated in Operation Attleboro in Tay Ninh Province. The Americal was formed as a temporary division called Task Force Oregon in April 1967. It was to be a provisional-sized division in I Corps working out of Chu Lai. Originally, the division consisted of the 196th LIB, which was moved from III Corps, the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. In September 1967, the Americal was designated as the 23rd Infantry Division. Over the next year, the division was reshaped as units were assigned to it. Finally, on 15 February 1969, it officially became the Americal (23rd) Division. Its mission was to assist the Marines in southern I Corps. In that area of operations, the Americal's orders were to deny VC and NVA soldiers from gaining a foothold in those northern provinces of South Vietnam between Duc Pho and Tam Ky. The 196th headquarters was located on LZ Baldy. The 3/21 had its operations center on LZ Center. Since this division and especially the 3/21 was composed mostly of draftees and assembled under the pressure of an escalating war, the training of the troops was not always adequate to the task at hand. However, in the true tradition of citizen soldiers throughout the history of the United States of America, the men in these units accomplished their missions with the same pride, ingenuity, and tenacity of more highly trained units. This is a testament to the men of this generation who fought and died in Vietnam and not to the leadership that sent them there, and especially not to the part of the same generation who scorned the enormous sacrifice these men made in what often seemed a meaningless war.
It seemed that I had just closed my eyes when Joe Freeman shook my foot. It was my turn to stand watch, and dawn was less than two hours away. SP-4 Joseph Freeman came from Cincinnati, Ohio. He arrived in Nam in November 1968. He was a rifleman and had been rotating walking point with SP-4 Dave Classick for some time when I joined the squad. When Dave left the squad, Freeman, Ron Kociba, and I rotated walking point. Joe was quiet, tough, and reliable. He was the only black guy I ever knew who liked country music. He always carried a transistor radio in his rucksack so he could listen to the country and western music radio hour on the armed forces radio station. His favorite singer was Charlie Pride. Without a word, Freeman crawled on to his air mattress, and I crawled into the foxhole.
Placing my M-16 on the small mound of dirt built up in front of the hole, I leaned forward to scan the shadows of the trees and bushes outside the perimeter. Then I checked to see if the firing devices for the claymore mines were in their proper place. Feeling confident there was no immediate threat, my mind settled on the events that had taken place about a month before.
SP-4 Glen Lawson had been the squad leader of the 1st Squad when I joined the platoon. In early April, he began to get boils on his back, and they would break open and start to bleed every time he put on his rucksack. He had to be sent to the rear for medical treatment. Lt. Jim Gordon, who was our platoon leader at the time, asked me to replace Glen. Although there were others in the squad who had been in country longer, I had been in the military the longest, having spent an eighteen-month tour of duty with the 14th the 14th Cav in Germany. I also had above-average map and compass skills as well as training in radio procedures and small unit tactics.
The U.S. military in Germany was in a constant training mode due to the threat of a Soviet evasion. As a forward line unit, the 14th Armored Cavalry was in the field almost every month, running field training exercises (FTXs). Being a track commander of a 4.2 mortar track had honed my ability to handle situations in the field.
When I arrived in C Company, I was assigned to be a rifleman. It had been company policy not to put greenseeds in dangerously close combat situations until the platoon leader felt they could handle it. This afforded me some time to observe and learn.
After observing a few firefights, I was somewhat taken aback by the tactics used to counter enemy aggression. Many of the tactics used were contrary to what I'd been trained to do while with the 14th Cav. However, in the military, it's best to keep your mouth shut and go with the flow. That is what I did. However, the lack of using proper tactics was not always the fault of field-grade officers or squad leaders. To the men in the field, it often seemed that senior-grade officers sitting in bunkers in the rear were more interested in earning medals than in the welfare of their men. After all, in the geopolitical scheme of that era, Vietnam was just a sideshow. The real center of American military might was in Europe and the battle against the Soviets. Senior-grade officers could earn their promotions and ribbons in Vietnam and then go to the Pentagon and Europe to strut around like roosters while their men in Vietnam went home in body bags. What else could be expected from them when their first Commander-in-Chief had no clear plan for victory, and their second Commander-in-Chief was elected on a platform of an ignoble withdrawal called peace with honor. Honor maybe, but no leader should ever allow his armies to leave the battlefield without the glory of victory. Caution was not taken in laying out a strategy or proper training from the top, and this often translated into poor execution in the field. Even though officers in the field treated their men humanely, it seemed the brass were lacking in laying out an effective plan to defeat the enemy.
Excerpted from Tam Ky by Thomas Pozdol Copyright © 2009 by Thomas Pozdol. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 12 May 1969: Sappers Inside the Wire....................3
Chapter 2 13 May 1969: Hot LZ....................19
Chapter 3 The First Night Near Nui Yon: No Sleep for C Company....................36
Chapter 4 14 May 1969: Point Squad....................41
Chapter 5 The Second Night Near Nui Yon: The Defensive Perimeter....................59
Chapter 6 15 May 1969: The Bloodied Tigers Rise....................68
Appendix A Killed in Action(KIA)-Missing In Action(MIA)....................84
Appendix B Wounded in Action (WIA)....................85
Appendix C SP-4 Larry Aiken....................87
Appendix D 2nd NVA Division....................90
Appendix E In Memory, Nguyen Dak....................91
Glossary of Terms....................95
13 May-Combat Assault and Patrol....................100
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I purchased Tom's book for my brother who had two tours of Viet Nam. The day Charlie received the book, he read it completely. It was well written , giving clear details of Charlie C and the battle of Tam Ky. I highly recommend this book for anyone and everyone who wants to never forget some of the battles our men in military have fought and won. And the price it cost. Looking forward to more books from Tom Pozdol.
Thomas Pozdol takes you back to May of 1969, when his Charlie Tigers slugged it out with a numerically superior enemy force in the jungles of Vietnam. A blend of firsthand accounts and historical Army records, this is an excellent factual account of a battle none who were there could ever forget. Pozdol immediately draws the readers in by looking at LZ Center from the eyes of an NVA sapper who is about to attack that firebase. Almost from that first page, the reader is engrossed in the story of citizen soldiers (most of the company were draftees) fighting for their lives. The story has plenty of professional combat writing, interspaced with personal accounts, including the story of one medic who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. In addition to the actual story, the author offers several useful appendices, which help those less familiar with military terminology follow the story. There are also several pictures of the author's fellow soldiers, further adding the personal touch to the work. Finally, it is easily read in an afternoon. Vietnam veterans, infantrymen, their families, and those with a general interest in the Vietnam war will certainly enjoy both the professional realism and personal touch found in this book.