Battle of Suoi Tre

The Battle of Suoi Tre (Vietnamese: suối Tre) occurred during the early morning of 21 March 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam, to the west of the capital Saigon. After being challenged heavily to begin with, the Americans gained the upper hand and completed a convincing victory over the Viet Cong (VC). They claimed to have found 647 bodies and captured seven prisoners, while recovering 65 crew-served and 94 individual weapons. The Americans losses were 36 dead and 190 wounded, a fatality ratio of more than twenty to one in their favour.

On 19 March, American helicopters dropped two infantry battalions off in a clearing near Suoi Tre to build a fire support base to be used in search and destroy missions against the VC. During the airlift, seven helicopters were damaged. On March 21, a VC attack started before dawn at 6:30 a.m., headlined by mortars, and followed by a large-scale infantry charge. They overwhelmed parts of the American perimeter at first, and forced them to withdraw inwards. After a period, American reinforcements broke through the VC envelope to assist their besieged colleagues, and firepower and artillery helped them gain the upper hand. The VC stubbornly fought on, with some carrying wounded compatriots forward in follow-up infantry charges, but they were eventually forced to withdraw with heavy casualties.

Background

On 20 March, in an area surrounded by a tree line of sparse woodland that had been scarred by defoliants, American helicopters landed the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery Regiment, led by Lieutenant Colonels John A. Bender and John William Vessey Jr., respectively, as part of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division led by Colonel Marshall B. Garth.[1] Their objective was to establish Fire Support Base Gold, which would be used to support search and destroy missions of Operation Junction City. The Americans did not anticipate heavy action.[1]

The landing area was an elliptical clearing close to Suoi Tre, near the center of War Zone C and 90 km northwest of Saigon. Only 3 km away, during Operation Attleboro a few months earlier, the Americans had defeated the VC at the Battle of Ap Cha Do. The 272nd Regiment of the 9th Division had been involved in that battle, and had recovered since then.[1]:135

On March 19 as the three sets of helicopters landed, five heavy remote-controlled charges were set off by the VC in the landing clearing. Three helicopters were destroyed and six more damaged, leaving fifteen killed and 28 wounded. A VC claymore-type mine was also detonated against Company C, 3/22nd Infantry, wounding five infantrymen.[1]:137

Company B, 3/22nd Infantry, was assigned the east portion of the defensive perimeter, Company A the western half. Later that day the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment landed at Fire Support Base Gold and moved to the northwest. Its final airlift attracted VC fire, and another seven helicopters were damaged.[1]:137

On 20 March work was done to improve the fire support base's perimeter defenses, which was fortunate for the Americans as the Battle of Suoi Tre began the next day.[1]:137

Battle

At 04:30, a night patrol from Company B which was operating outside the perimeter reported movement near its ambush site. However no further movement was detected for two hours. At 06:30 the patrol prepared to return to camp. One minute later, explosions were set off in the area as the US base came under heavy attack from enemy 60 mm and 82 mm mortars. Simultaneously, the patrol was attacked by a VC force. Within five minutes, the patrol had been overpowered, and all of its men were killed or wounded.[1]:137

The first VC mortar round landed on the doorstep of a company command post; seconds later another exploded outside battalion headquarters. An estimated 650 mortar rounds fell while the VC advanced towards the perimeter. As they moved closer, machine guns and recoilless rifles joined the attack as the VC prepared to assault the position.[1]:137

Minutes later, the entire perimeter came under attack by waves of VC infantry emerging from the jungle and firing recoilless rifles, RPG-2 rockets, automatic weapons, and small arms. The heaviest attacks were concentrated on the northeastern and southeastern portions of the base. As the VC attack intensified, the three US artillery batteries began to return mortar fire at their VC counterparts. During the first assault, Company B reported that its 1st Platoon positions on the south-eastern perimeter had been penetrated and that a reaction force from the 2/77th Artillery, was needed to reinforce them. Artillery was sent to the perimeter to help repulse the continuing attacks.[1]:138

At 07:00 the first Forward Air Controller (FAC) arrived to direct American air strikes against the VC. At the same time, two batteries of 105 mm howitzers located at nearby fire support bases were brought within 100 m of the battalion's perimeter. At 07:11, Company B reported that its 1st Platoon had been overrun and faced by an infantry charge. Air strikes were called in all along the wood line to the east to ease the pressure on the besieged company. Then the FAC directing these strikes was shot down by automatic weapons fire. At 07:50 the Company B commander requested that the artillery fire beehive rounds into the southeastern and southern sections of his perimeter. At 07:56 Company B reported that the VC had penetrated the 1st Platoon sector and ammunition was depleted there. Ammunition and twenty men from Company A were sent to assist B Company. At 08:13 the northeastern section of the perimeter was overrun by another infantry charge. At 08:15, elements of Company A which had established an ambush just outside the perimeter the previous night charged into the camp's perimeter and assumed defensive positions, managing to evade the surrounding VC.[1]:138

Company A reported that the VC had penetrated the northern perimeter. Ten minutes later an M45 Quadmount machine gun located there was hit by RPG-2 rocket rounds and overrun. As the attacking VC reached the weapon and attempted to turn it on the Americans, the gun was blown apart by a round from a 105 mm howitzer crew from their position 75 m away. By 08:40 the Americans on the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern perimeter had withdrawn to a secondary defensive line around the artillery. The northern, western, and southern defenders were managing to hold despite large numbers of VC who had come within 15 m from the defensive positions, and within hand grenade range of the battalion command post and only 5 m from the battalion aid station. The American howitzers, now depressed to almost zero elevation, began firing beehive rounds into the VC at point-blank range. Each round had 8,000 finned steel missiles directed at their target.[1]:138-9

American air strikes were brought in within 50 m of their compatriots and supporting artillery pounded areas around the perimeter to stop the VC. When the artillerymen had exhausted their supply of beehive rounds, they began to fire high explosive rounds at point-blank range. By 09:00 the northern, western, and southern sectors of the perimeter were holding despite ongoing VC pressure. The positions on the east had withdrawn inwards, but were still intact.[1]:139

The 3rd Brigade headquarters had already alerted its other units conducting operations to the west. They were the 2/12th Infantry, the 2/22nd Infantry (Mechanized), and the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor Regiment. When word of the attack reached these forces, they returned immediately to base. The 2/12th Infantry moved from the northwest and the mechanized infantry and armor battalions moved from the southwest until they reached the stream, where they were held up while finding a feasible crossing site, of which there was only one.[1]:139

At 09:00 the relief column from the 2/12th Infantry broke through the VC and linked up with the depleted Company B. With the replenished forces and firepower, the two units were able to counterattack to the east and reestablish the original perimeter. The VC continued attacking, using wounded soldiers who had been bandaged earlier in the same battle. The Americans reported that they were advancing, even though some could not walk and had to be carried into offensive positions by colleagues.[1]:139

Twelve minutes after the first US relief unit arrived, the mechanized infantry and armor column broke through the jungle from the southwest to reinforce the American defenders. With their 90 mm guns firing canister rounds and machine guns raking the VC, they moved into the advancing VC, cutting them down and forcing them to withdraw. By 09:30 the base perimeter had been re-secured and thirty minutes later, helicopters had arrived to evacuate the wounded Americans. By 10:45 the battle was over, except for various armored cars and tanks that pursued the retreating VC, who were also targeted with artillery and air strikes. This continued until noon.[1]:139-40

Aftermath

The Americans claimed 647 Viet Cong casualties, took seven prisoners and 65 crew-served and 94 individual weapons. Of the weapons captured, fifty were RPG-2 rocket launchers. The Americans lost 36 killed and 190 wounded.[1]:140

Documents captured in the area showed that intensive planning had been made by the VC before the attack. The attacking force was identified by the Americans as the 272nd Regiment of the 9th Division, and elements of U-80 Artillery. The 272nd was considered by the Americans to be one of the best organized and equipped VC units and was one of the few that dared to make daylight attacks.[1]:140

References

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Rogers, Bernard (1989). Vietnam Studies Cedar Falls–Junction City: A Turning Point. United States Army Center of Military History. p. 136. ISBN 978-1517705893.
12th Infantry Regiment (United States)

The 12th Infantry Regiment is a unit of the United States Army. The 12th Infantry has fought in seven wars from the Civil War to the Global War on Terrorism and has been awarded four Presidential Unit Citations, five Valorous Unit Awards, a Joint Meritorious Unit Award, two citations in the Order of the Day of the Belgian Army, three Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, the Republic of Vietnam Civil Action Honor Medal First Class, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, and the Belgian Fourragere.

22nd Infantry Regiment (United States)

The 22nd Infantry Regiment is a parent regiment of the United States Army. Currently the 2nd Battalion is active. The 1st, 3rd and 4th Battalions have been inactivated. The regimental colors reside at Fort Drum, New York, with the 2nd Battalion.

9th Division (Vietnam)

The 9th Infantry Division is a division of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN), first formed from Viet Cong units in 1964/5 in the Mekong Delta region.

John William Vessey Jr.

John William Vessey Jr. (June 29, 1922 – August 18, 2016) was a career officer in the United States Army. He attained the rank of general, and is most notable for his service as the tenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A native of Minneapolis, Vessey was a 16 year old Roosevelt High School student in 1939 when he began his 46-year military career by falsely claiming to be 18 so he could join the Minnesota Army National Guard's 59th Field Artillery Brigade, a unit of the 34th Infantry Division. His unit was activated for World War II, and he took part in combat in the North African and Italian Campaigns. Vessey received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant during the Battle of Anzio, and served as a field artillery forward observer until the end of the war. He remained on active duty after the war, and continued to advance through positions of increasing rank and responsibility, including assignments in West Germany during the Cold War. He graduated from the University of Maryland University College in 1963, and received a Master of Science degree from George Washington University in 1965. In addition, Vessey completed the United States Army Command and General Staff College and Armed Forces Staff College courses and the program of study at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. During the Vietnam War, he served as executive officer of the 25th Infantry Division Artillery and acting commander of 2nd Battalion, 77th Field Artillery, and he received the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during the Battle of Suoi Tre. He served as commander of the 3rd Armored Division Artillery from 1967 to 1969, and the division chief of staff from 1969 to 1970.

Vessey was promoted to brigadier general in 1970, and assigned as commander of U.S. Army Supply Thailand, a logistics support area for soldiers serving in Vietnam. He commanded U.S. military activities in Laos from 1973 to 1974, when he was promoted to major general as commander of the 4th Infantry Division. In 1975, Vessey was promoted to lieutenant general and assigned as the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, G-3. He was promoted to general in 1976, and named to command United States Forces Korea and the Eighth United States Army. In 1978, Vessey also assumed command of the Republic of Korea-United States Combined Forces Command. He served in Korea until 1979, when he was assigned as Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan named Vessey as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He served until retiring in October 1985, and his tenure was most notable for his high-profile support of the Reagan-era increase in defense spending and military preparedness. Vessey opted to retire before the completion of his second two-year term; according to published reports, he had intended to retire in June 1985 in deference to his wife's wishes to leave Washington, DC for their home in rural Minnesota, but remained on duty until the resolution of the TWA Flight 847 hostage crisis and other ongoing military activities. After leaving the Army, Vessey became involved in efforts to account for military personnel listed as missing in action, and made several trips to Southeast Asia to search for remains as part of resolving the Vietnam War POW/MIA issue. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992. Vessey died in North Oaks, Minnesota on August 18, 2016. He was buried at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, Minnesota.

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