The Sapper Attack - June 1969
By Ashley W. Wright

It was the first week of June, 1969. For weeks before the attack, the enemy had been probing our perimeter. Night after night, ARVN and US Marine snipers, from high above FSB Charlie One's observation towers, pecked away at those eerie, translucent green-grey shadows which moved silently across the big lenses of their starlight scopes. Occasionally, when teams of the enemy were picked up on experimental antipersonnel radar deployed at C-1, an ARVN mortar team would lay down fire to discourage them.

On the night of the attack, what turned out to be an NVA sapper company was seen approaching by the radar. An ARVN 105mm battery on C-1's northern outer perimeter set minimum safe time on their fuses and began firing directly into sapper ranks. We were told later that NVA mortar teams were supposed to have covered their comrades' assault but had mistaken the 105mm muzzle blasts and the close-in air bursts for detonating sapper charges so, ironically, they held back so as not to bring fire on their own troops.

The sappers were caught in the open. They had nowhere to run because the perimeter was sewn with old French and new American antipersonnel mines and could only be traversed safely with great care, in the light of day. When the ARVN Vietnamese artillery opened fire, they just hunkered down and took it. They also faced withering fire from the light and heavy machine guns of the ARVN armored cavalry unit that had just been resupplied and deployed on C-1's outer perimeter that afternoon. An hour or so after the opening shots were fired, a Marine Corps OV-10 Bronco observation aircraft began rocket and strafing runs low over their positions, just outside C-1's outer perimeter.

Our role and the role of the US 3rd Marine 155mm howitzer gunners positioned just south of us at C-1 was passive. We couldn't fire over the heads of the ARVN at such close range and, in any case, the berms of our gun pits would not have allowed us to lower our tubes enough to be effective. Our gun crews secured the guns and ammo bunkers and the rest of us stayed atop our underground bunkers, not in them, to give us height advantage if the sappers broke through our inner perimeter. They did not.

The shooting began to fade at dawn. The few sappers still out there and alive took advantage of the coming light to make their retreat through the mines. But the light also afforded our snipers and the ARVN the opportunity to pick them off. Some were shot as they fled; others lost limbs and lives to the mines.

As the morning progressed, the full extent of what had happened during the night became clear. There were bodies everywhere. A 100 meters from our inner perimeter gate an NVA soldier's torso hung headless and limbless in the concertina wire.

Near the fire base's front gate, the sapper company commander, a captain, sat in the mine field defiantly waving a small automatic pistol at ARVN and American soldiers who hoped to coax him into surrendering so they could retrieve from him valuable intelligence. He had lost both legs below the knees to a mine blast. His stumps and head wounds were bandaged. There were tourniquets around both his thighs. He wouldn't throw down his weapon and after an hour or so took his own life with shot through the roof of the mouth.

The body count was in by mid-day after hours of picking through the mine fields, dragging some bodies clear with grappling hooks suspended from long cables lowered from helicopters. There were 67 in all, stacked up along the road that ran between Highway 1 and C-1's front gate. There were no ARVN or American casualties as far as we knew.

We learned later that NVA intelligence had failed to pick up the deployment on our perimeter that day of the newly resupplied ARVN armored cavalry unit whose heavy weapons, along with the 105s of an ARVN artillery unit, laid down an impenetrable field of fire. We were thankful that uncharacteristic oversight.