Small Wars Journal

The Great Firebase Shootout

Mon, 11/03/2014 - 11:31am

The Great Firebase Shootout

Keith Nightingale

Fire Support Base (FSB) Barbara sits on the last ridge between the Annamite Mountain chain and the low lands of Quang Tri Province. In the arcane language of the Army and its maps, it can be located at YD 330335.  The high spiking mountains to the west hide the deep valleys and watercourses that mark the main thoroughfares of the Ho Chi Minh Trail-actually a series of major roads and trails coursing from the interior of North Vietnam to the final low ground of the Delta in South Vietnam. The FSB was built to assist in the interdiction of this complex and vital network.

The base itself is somewhat triangular shaped and quite steep on all sides.  It sits astride an old French road, QL 9,  that winds its way from the ocean to the Lao Border-less than 20 miles as the crow flies.  A tortuous dirt track winds its way from the old road to the top of the FSB in a series of switchbacks that twist more than 300 feet from the floor. From the top, a sea of undulating green unfolds revealing both Laos and the ocean plain.  A bit to the south but still within artillery range and easily visible in the haze,  is its sister FSB, Anne at YD 559039.

Both were built by rotating Army and Marine elements and occupied spasmodically over the course of the war as the tides of conflict ebbed and flowed in the province.  Now, in the Fall of 1970, it was subject to occupation by the Army-specifically, the 1st Battalion of the 502d Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division.  The lead element would be Company D.  To this point, the battalion had been operating on the western edge of the A Shau with sporadic contact and relatively light casualties.  FSB Barbara had been abandoned for more than six months.  There was no information for the assault force on exactly what would be found there.  It was assumed that it would have been thoroughly looted by the NVA and probably booby trapped. 

D Company was assembled near FSB Bastogne in the early morning hours and began to lift out in flights of five UH1H’s, each with 4 or 5 loaded soldiers.  The humidity was still unseasonably heavy and the lift ability was limited. It was to be a long day.  The plan called for Co’s  D and C to occupy Barbara while the battalion CP and Co’s A & B would occupy Anne.  A 105 MM arty battery would be slung into each as soon as the bases were cleared and secured. 

Anne was occupied first as it had been recently occupied and the amenities of life, such as they were, were present.  It also had a village relatively close by where ice and fresh foodstuff could be found.  Much better for battalion-level personnel.

Flying into Barbara was akin to having a moving seat in an Imax theatre.  The entire expanse of view was a lush green, intermittently a bright Spring-like green among the fields toward the coast shifting to a dark and brooding density as the mass of the mountains came into view.  In the distance but closing, the bare ochre spot in the green that marked the FSB began to emerge.

The first helo hovered just above the abandoned bunker at the highest point of the hill.  It held steady with the skids less than a yard off the ground.  Amidst swirling dust clouds, the troops jumped off from both sides of the aircraft and threw themselves on the ground-an easy act of physics with the ponderous rucksacks on their back.  The now empty helo lifted off with a fresh swirl of dust to be replaced by successive waves.  As each load departed, the troops now covered in rivulets of sweat outlined by the fine red laterite sand and dirt caked on every exposed piece of skin, fanned out and began clearing the abandoned fire base.

By late afternoon, both companies had been lifted in and the base was cleared for the artillery battery.  The bunkers were musty and damp with a layer of mud and dirt collected on each floor and exposed horizontal surface.  The troops, assigned to specific bunkers along the perimeter began cleaning their homes and making them reasonably habitable by their standards.  The leadership walked the perimeter and noted the gaps in the old Marine wire created by the passage of countless NVA scroungers as well as Marine patrol parties.  These were quickly stitched closed with the several Chinook loads of material that followed the troop lifts.  Last among these loads were the fougas devices.  These were 55 gallon drums of napalm to be arranged below each bunker, buried in the hillside and triggered by a Claymore activated from the bunker.  The troops hated emplacing them as the Chinook invariably knocked them down with its heavy downdraft and refilled with dirt each bunker that the troops had spent so much time in cleaning.  But they did appreciate the defensive value of the devices and took some pride in camouflaging them from casual view.

Last loads in were the artillery pieces.  These were each slung under a Chinook which usually held both the gun and a net of ammo suspended beneath.  Earlier, a battery advanced party had landed as the last UH1H loads and surveyed the old gun positions to confirm positioning.  The guns, slung under a hovering Chinook,  created huge dust clouds all over the fire base and for more than thirty minutes, obscured the hill from direct observation.  From horizon to horizon, it was clear that something was happening-the what to be revealed as the last Chinook disappeared in the distance.

The sun began to wane in intensity over the South China Sea as the officers and senior NCO’s went along the entire perimeter, checking firing lanes, claymore positioning and the outpost plans.  The artillery battery had settled in and had arranged its guns on the primary chosen azimuth.  Artillery from the plains as well as the rifle company mortars registered their fires.  The newly opened fire base awaited the night and a potential assault.  The enemy now knew full well the size, strength and relative composition of the force on Barbara.  It was not a question of if but when they would come.  The answer arrived around full dark, shrouding the base from meaningful observation.

The attack began in small and unnoticed increments.  Quiet, stealthy infiltration in front of each position.  Suddenly, the new occupants were overwhelmed and overrun by the primary force in the area-Rats!  Rats by the hundreds.  Large, dark and extremely hungry.  They attacked in singles and in hordes.  They searched every bunker, trench line and trail within the FSB.  Any part of the new occupants that held the promise of food was thoroughly assaulted.  Soldiers asleep with boots off were awakened as a rat bit into the warm, sweaty toes.  A stray open can of peanut butter was hotly contested by a dozen as they squealed and shoved aside their brethren to grab a morsel of the remnants.  A suddenly awake soldier would turn on a flashlight to see dozens of black forms scurrying on floors, rafters and sleeping companions.

With the morning light, an aroused perimeter stood the morning alert and watched the horde descend down the side of the hill to their repose.  The two senior officers compared similar stories and sent out exploratory patrols.  Shortly, these elements returned with a consistent picture as to the enemy.  For months, the previous occupants had used the base of the hill as a garbage dump.  They ringed the outer barbed wire barrier with all the detritus of life that the temporary occupiers bring.  Ammo crates, empty C ration cans, paper plates from meals, artillery shipping canisters and refuse from long eaten A ration meals piled around the lower wire presenting a feast for the ages.  Over time, the rats had multiplied with this military largesse.  Suddenly, the fresh daily infusions had ceased and the feast had turned to famine.  Just in time C and D of 1-502 appeared to relieve the starving hordes.

Finally aware of the source, the leadership held a conclave to determine the best way to reduce the infiltration.  A three part assault program was initiated.  Part One was a flame assault with C ration cans of gas tossed in the piles and ignited by a tossed flare.  This was followed by sacks of Warfarin, flown in with the resupply and spread across the pile the circumference of the hill base.  Third and most unique was a contest to judge the most effective bunker by body count in rat eradication.

This contest was to last the deployment.  Each morning, each bunker and artillery position would produce its body count at Stand To.  The tally to be accomplished by an impartial panel of First Sergeants from the two rifle companies and the artillery battery.  At the end of the deployment, the winning bunker would be awarded three days at China Beach.  Second Place was a two day relief from fatigue details in the rear and Third Place was awarded first in line at the next sporadic A ration meal.  None of these were inconsequential to the soldiers engaged.

The troops took to this challenge with unbridled enthusiasm and a solid demonstration of American ingenuity.  Buckets of water were arranged with well greased flattened C ration cans extending to the middle of the bucket.  Dangling on a string just over the water and almost touching the ramp was some enticing morsel.  A piece of “Beefsteak” from the B3 unit was judged best for the task.  During monsoon boredom, most soldiers had carefully dissected this strange composition into its constituent parts and discovered the remains of an anatomy class within.  Ham slices were considered way too valuable for this job.

Equally popular by the bunker occupants was the sling shot.  Most were created from the fire base medical supplies.  Surgical tubing, arranged on an arm brace or IV holder became a deadly weapon within the confines of a dark bunker.  The ball bearings from the Claymore became the ammo of choice.  The medics noted a rise in lacerations and eye injuries from the ricochet effect within the bunker structures. Phu Bai base was perplexed by the sudden call for tubing and IV/arm braces as no significant contact was being briefed.

Most effective however, and the device that created the greatest degree of command engagement and review was the bologna Claymore.  This was a team effort by a bunker.  The detonating wire and blasting cap from a Claymore was strung out from the bunker entrance to  the small dirt road that connected all the perimeter elements on the hill.  A piece of bologna salvaged from the occasional lunch meals supplied to the hill was draped over the blasting cap.  Those without bologna, used multiple thin slices of Slim Jim’s which virtually everybody had.  The really destitute element might employ a combination of crackers and peanut butter.  Key was achieving a circumference of food on top of the blasting cap to accommodate the greatest amount of feeders.

At dark, each team would place the blasting cap in the middle of the road and cover it with food.  Then at a strategic location-but within the space for the bunker (a line constantly adjudicated by the command group), a soldier would carefully hold and aim a flashlight at the feed point.  The large personal Maglight was favored over the durable but dim military issue light.  A second soldier, designated the clacker, would hold the ignition snap device and lay next to the designated illumination specialist.  In the dark, there would be whispered discussions regarding the optimum time to “blow the Claymore.”  Given time and obscurity, the rats would gather in a circle around the food and begin to feed inward.  Key was illuminating the scene before the food was fully consumed and the feeders dispersal.  A light would suddenly shine on the bologna. A dozen or more heads would appear feeding and transfixed.  The clacker operator would squeeze the device, the blasting cap explode and decapitate the feeding frenzy.

Each morning, the body count would be lined outside each bunker on the street and a joint NCO walk about would tally the results.  The ascending totals would be posted at the top of the hill at the Chief of Smoke’s bunker. 

The use of the Claymore wires became a command issue that was again solved by American ingenuity.  The D Company commander asked for an engineer demo squad to assist in “broadening the road” and a good quantity of demolitions material.  The unit First Sergeant, sent to the rear on a resupply run, insured the engineers understood what the key supply item was they needed to bring.  Every bunker received four blasting caps nightly which they could sequentially re-attach to the Claymore wire.  The amount of issued caps became an item of close accountability by each bunker team.  Phu Bai received daily reports of the great work the engineers were doing and constantly refilled the blasting cap requests.  To maintain decorum, each bunker also had to have an inventory of three complete Claymores in addition to the one behind the fougas barrel.

A significant problem became disposal of the night’s body count.  Initially, the corpses were just flung over the wire from an entrenching tool.  The battalion surgeon and medics complained that this approach was unsanitary.  Within three days of the initial assault, the problem became significant as both the stench of rotting corpses and the influx of huge bottle flies reinforced the concern.  A solution was achieved when the Chief of Smoke suggested a daily immolation combining both the bodies and the evening’s spare artillery charges. 

Accordingly, a large pit was dug in the north central side of the base.  At the conclusion of the morning body count, each bunker deposited its remains in the pit.  These were interspersed with powder grains like a coating of lime.  As the final corpse was interred, the remainder of the unused artillery powder and mortar charges were scattered on top.  Everyone stepped back and a trip flare was ignited and thrown into the pit.  A roar ensued with a very bright intense light of flame erupting from the bowels that would do justice to the Bible’s description of Abraham seeing the light.  Disposal issue resolved.

While this was going on, the units still had to perform their primary tasks-essentially patrolling the ridges and the road to the west.  A skeleton crew was left to man the bunker line as the bulk of the troops deployed at first light.  In some cases, a squad or platoon would be required to stay in the bush to establish ambushes.  As the contest and its reward was heating up to a major emotional event, a system had to be developed to insure fairness.  No opportunity for body count could be missed due to other priorities.

The command group, three Captains and three First Sergeant’s devised a plan that seemed to satisfy the situation.  All bunkers had to have 3 people at all times.  Deployed platoons would leave the short timers, lame or exceptionally proficient behind to maintain the body count.  A duty roster was established that insured all squads and platoons were fairly rotated to the bush without losing a significant advantage in the contest.  This program progressed over a three week period.

Each morning, the accumulated confirmed count was written on a C ration box top and posted at the top of the bunker entrance for all to see. The master list was maintained by the artillery CP and available for examination.  The status of each bunker was noted by all who kept up the comparisons like touts at a racetrack. The results were pretty uniform and reflected an enemy that had no prejudices as to ground.  The artillery positions were somewhat below average in count which they attributed to their unfair positioning behind the bunkers.

Finally, the units were alerted that they would be rotated back to Phu Bai.  A sister battalion would replace them.  On the final evening and morning of occupation, intensive efforts were made to entice the now seriously dwindling rat population toward a given bunker.  Trails of food were left from the bottom wire in a last ditch effort to attract Rattus Rattus into the bunker killing zone.  Every position ran an all-night interdiction program piling the carcasses on the road in a guarded poncho to prevent sister bunker depredations and false body counts.

Dawn broke and the final census was made by the command group en masse.  Results were closely guarded until all corpses had been interred in the burn pit.  The winning bunker was # 12, closely followed by Gun Pit #1-the only gun at the edge of the perimeter. Bunker 6 came in a very close third separated by less than 10 from the winner.  In all, more than a thousand rats were eradicated.  Like the NVA adversaries, they would be beaten one day but return the next.  But that was someone else’s problem.  Bunker #12 did a check for swim suits and sun tan lotion.  The operation was declared a success by the battalion commander and Commanding General who met the troops as they arrived at Phu Bai base.  The troops agreed but for a different reason.

About the Author(s)

COL Nightingale is a retired Army Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam with Airborne and Ranger (American and Vietnamese) units. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade.