PART II :
From the beginning, lieutenant colonel Bao and his officers realized that their defensive mission on Charlie was really bad choice. They had the feeling like they should have been entering an invisible trap laid down awaiting them. Everybody knew, the Mountains Warfare was also the battle between the Heights. C, C1, C2 were high hills with altitudes of 960-1062 m. But they were no sense in comparison with the heights of 1274, 1513, 1773 m of the Big Mamma Mountains where the NVA´s heavy artillery guns located. They dared not think further. They had got a military mission to defend these hills and the Airborne discipline forced them to obey this stupid military order whether they wanted it or not.
The STRENGTH of the Airborne units as general reserved force of the ARVN´s Joint General Staff was Mobility and Quick and Aggressive Attack. Now, used as a defensive force fixing to a place they had lost their space for Mobility and Flexibility and was completely exposed to artillery shelling of enemy forces.
They had no other choice than had to accept the fate to prepare their glorious death.
At the first night, the engine noise of the NVA´s military convoys moving along West and Southwest of the Truong Son range could be heard from Charlie. The headlights of these Molotova convoys could be realized from far away. Harassing fires were called but ineffective because of out of artillery range.
The next day, 26th March 1972, Major Le Van Me, deputy battailion commander lead two companies
112 and 114 in an effort to relieve a unit of 2nd airborne battalion being sieged in the South. The airborne attack was fiercely with artillery and air support. Although enemy stood and resisted, they were finally pushed out of position. Not long after that, enemy elements belonging to the division F-320 counterattacked using human waves supported directly by 75mm assault artillery firing from the next hill. To avoid unnecessary casualties, Me ordered the withdrawal of two companies and then using air and artillery to push back the attacks in of enemy in human waves.
The commander of 11th airborne battalion frowned. He felt that the invisible trap of enemy was gradually tightened.
The following days were relatively calm. The calm before the storm.
The companies launched daily their recon teams to search the traces of enemy fighting units.
Most of the time, the NVA´s fighting forces were well hidden deeply in prepared positions of the mountains of the Truong Son range. How could they be forced to leave their hideouts ?
Bombs were dropped everyday. But they were only fragmentation bombs and had therefore no effects on the NVA´s U-shaped tunnels or bunkers.
On 27th March 1972, NVA´s heavy artillery guns (105 mm, 122 mm, 130 mm) began to pour down Charlie as a prelude to the most fierce battle in the Central Highlands of Military Region II.
Since then Charlie had not got a moment of peace.
Firstly, the artillery rounds of enemy exploded somewhere outside of the Fire Base Charlie.
The forward artillery observers (FAOs) of airborne companies called executing counterfire efforts at once. Enemy shelling ceased for a moment and fired back again onto airborne positions once ARVN´s artillery counter-batteries in other Fire Support Bases stopped firing. Such artillery duels took place daily many times. Gradually, enemy artillery spotters approached the airborne Fire Base nearer and nearer. They could then adjust the coordinates and gave more and more precise fire direction.
The NVA´s artillery shells began falling then inside of Charlie. The casualties of paratroopers increased.
Clearly, NVA wanted firstly to test the ability of airborne counterfire, then took their big field guns 130 mm nearer to targets. With a firing range of approximately 30 km these 130 mm towed artillery field guns outranged all ARVN´s artillery guns (11 km for 105 mm and 15 km for 155 mm) !
Early morning of 01st April 1972, after heavy artillery preparation fire lasted for four hours, the NVA´s troops of the 64th regiment (Steel Fist regiment) of the elite division 320 – the famous Steel or Dien Bien division - began to assault in human waves the Fire Base Charlie from the South. This direction was defended by paratroopers of company 114 of captain Cho. Simultaneously the NVA´s artillery made also harrasing fire on all ARVN´s artillery positions to prevent their counterfires or fire support for Charlie. The paratroopers of company 114 returned fire bravely.
The company 112 of captain Hung (no relation to captain Hung of company 113 !) gave directly fire support for comrades in arms of 114. The battle was fiercely.
North Vietnamese artillery pounded ARVN positions during the Easter Offensive 1972. These 130mm towed field guns had a range of 30 km and played a major role during
this offensive campaign. They outgunned ARVN´s 155mm, 105mm artilleries.
Human waves in human waves the NVA-soldiers came forward. They shouted frantically :
« Surrender, you´ll survive ! Fight back, you´ll die ! »
But paratroopers fighted back vigorously.
Sighting, Aiming, Shooting.
« Hold the trenches ! ».
« Don´t fall back ! ».
« Fire ! Shoot the guys over there ! »
That was total chaotic on the front. It was an inferno with smoke, dust, flame and noise of gunshots.
The dying and wounded moaned. The artillery shells landed on trenches and exploded in deafening noise. Brave soldiers died on both sides.
« 415, 416, 417, this is 314. Adjust fire, over.
Direction…. Distance….Left….Infantry company in the open, over.
One round. Target yxz, out. »
« All stations, this is 314. Fire for effect. 10 volleys, over ».
And then after the artillery fire support from friendly Fire Bases (FSB 5, FSB 6, FSB Yankee, FSB Hotel,…) finished, the air cavalry finally came to help : the gunships and the Skyraiders of the USAF and the VNAF.
After many hours of fierce fighting the NVA´s ground assaults were successfully repulsed with enemy forces suffering heavy losses from the concentrated fire of paratroopers on the ground, gunships, TACAIR and artillery. The NVA´s fighting units of F-320 were finally forced to retreat.
Charlie stayed further under control of the ARVN´s 11th airborne battalion.
- « Lieutenant Colonel, I have called the Brigade Headquarters in Vo Dinh to report that NVA
has been shelling us with 130 mm heavy artillety guns, but they do not believe it ! »,
captain Hai said with a fatigue voice to his commander.
- « What !? They told you so !? », lieutenant colonel Bao asked with an angry voice.
- « They said, we have got to send them the 13o mm-shrapnels, then they should believe it ! »,
captain Hai answered with a bitterly ironic voice.
- « When they want it, then come here to search themselves ! », the commander kicked a rock
away angrily, « NVA used 130mm-ammunition with delay fuzes which caused deep holes with
catastrophic devastation like this !!! Tell Headquarters in Vo Dinh, that it is really 130 mm artillery
and I said it !!! ». The commander replied in an angry voice mixed with a little despair.
One day more was over on C, C1 and C2. The paratroopers hastily revised again the trenches damaged by enemy artillery shelling, dug bunkers and tunnels as deep as possible. As the survival rate should
depend on the depth of these senseless rocks. Hundreds of airborne soldiers stayed overnight with opening eyes piercing through the darkness. And wait. Sleeping was in that moment a luxury item for them.
When did the next enemy incoming artillery come ?
Where would they explode ?
Such silent questions echoed in heads of hundred airborne soldiers on C, C1, C2 of the Fire Base Charlie.
When the NVA fired their artillery, you could hear the guns go off. The sound was a very faint pop sound, so faint that if you were not tuned into it, you might wonder if you really heard it at all. Depending upon the weather which would affect the speed of sound, the pops were followed four to ten seconds later by exploding shells. The whistling sound that was made by incoming artillery shells was only heard when the round went over your head. The whistle sounds that last two or three seconds, like the ones on old war movies are artillery shells you don't worry about too much, those shells would land hundreds of feet from you.
The shells that would get you were the ones that whistled only for a fraction of a second before hitting the ground, but in that fraction of a second your mind would hear the whistle very clearly, measure the length of the sound, calculate how close to you it would land, and give you time to think about it.
When the incoming shells didn't go over you, the sound of the explosion was quite different, if the explosion was close, it sounded like a loud « WHAM » like someone hitting a sheet of corrugated steel with something heavy. The sound became less « wham like » and more sharp, like a heavy « CRACK » the further the explosion was from you. If the shells landed close to you, you heard a « THUD » as the shell impacted the ground. This was closely followed by the sudden outward movement of air and the sound wave of the explosion which followed it. Immediately following the sound wave you would hear strange little noises overhead as the pieces of shrapnel tumbled and flew through the air. These are sounds that you never forget.
After more than a week of continuous attacks on the position of airborne company 114 of captain Cho, the elements of NVA´s 320th division could not take Charlie, although they had to pay a heavy price for that with hundreds of killed NVA´s soldiers laid scattered outside of the defensive barbed wire fences.
The commander of the FSB Charlie, lieutenant colonel Bao, was however concerned about the actual situation of ammunition, food and drinking water. Additionally the number of paratroopers died and wounded after each NVA´s attack and artillery shelling increased. The supply sorties by helicopters were more and more difficult because of NVA´s heavy anti-aircraft guns established around the Fire Base Charlie.
Numerous NVA´s anti-aircraft weapons were now positioned around the FSB Charlie in order to prevent aerial re-supply or fire support.
In the command bunker, dug deeper than 1 m under the ground, lieutenant colonel Bao showed on the map the points which estimated the NVA´s artillery positions. He said :
- « I am sure that they positioned their guns here. All are heights with altitudes of over 1500 m.
From there they could see us clearly on C2 as we see our soldiers downwards on C or Charlie.
Yesterday they fired us with an unimaginable precision ! So, take care of yourselves, guys !
Doc and Me, don´t congregate in one place ! In case of something bad happened, there should be still someone leading the battalion ! »
Captain To Pham Lieu, the battalion´s Doc, and Major Me, the deputy battalion commander, stood up.
- « Yes, Sir. »
Lietenant Colonel Bao nodded and smiled slightly. An inexplicable sadness appeared on his face.
What was he perhaps feeling something ominously ? No one knew in that moment.
Captain Hai, Ops Officer of the battalion, stood up.
- « I go now, Sir. If something happens, I will come to you and Duffy. »
The Commander stood up, too. He walked up slowly and heavily and back to his command bunker. His back curved down. He went on soil excavated by enemy artillery shelling with the shadow of an injured tiger on the way back to the ruined ancient forest.
For the next several days NVA´s artillery forces poured down constantly the FSB Charlie.
The airborne positions (C, C1, C2) of the FSB Charlie had been almost completely surrounded by NVA-troops of 64th regiment, the Shock-regiment or the Steel Fist of North Vietnamese elite 320th division, reinforced by fighting units of NVA´s 66th regiment. This time the enemy moved troops even during the day. The sound of iron chains of enemy tanks and Molotova troop transport vehicles could be heard clearly after each artillery shelling. It was a very clear indication for everyone that the NVA now wanted to pull the thorn Charlie at any cost.
FACs (Forward Air Controllers) of USAF and VNAF discovered already 9 new positions of NVA´s anti-aircraft guns which ringed Charlie in order to suppress air support.
Two AA-positions armed with 12,7 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns were detected in East of Charlie, the planned evacuation direction of the airborne troops. Normally the air support for Charlie must be flown from North or South, over the West for bomb diving, then went out eastbound in direction of the National Route 14 (QL-14). Now this direction was blocked by NVA´s air-defense force.
The airborne troops on C, C1, C2 of the FSB Charlie could observe, that explosions of anti-aircraft ammunitions filled the sky each time when the fighters or helicopter gunships of USAF and VNAF come into the AO over Charlie.
The NVA also increased the harassing fire on other ARVN´s Fire Support Bases on Rocket Ridge to block the capacity of counter-fire of South Vietnamese artillery batteries on these FSBs.
From that moment, the artillery support for Charlie was strongly reduced to a marginal level.
Colonel Tran Quoc Lich, commander of the ARVN´s 2nd airborne brigade with the command post located in Vo Dinh, requested the headquarters of the II Corps in Kontum to allow the 11th airborne battalion
giving up their task of defending the FSB in order to operate mobile outside of the base.
But lieutenant general Ngo Dzu, commander of ARVN´s II Corps, refused to answer.
And the american senior advisor of II Corps, John Paul Vann, demanded that 11th airborne troops
had got to stay and fight to death.
Request of 11th airborne battalion for B-52 Arc Light sorties to relieve enemy pressure was inexplicably also rejected ! The Corps provided only B-52-support for Charlie, wenn airborne soldiers could prove with shrapnels that NVA had really used 130 mm heavy artillery for shelling Charlie !
These decisions from the High Command in Kontum had marked the fate of the paratroopers of the 11th battalion.
Only after Major Duffy, senior advisor of the 11th airborne battalion, requested through advisory system, there was then only one B-52 strike at midnight in the South of Charlie. Bombs were drop within 500 m from the friendly defensive lines ! The paratroopers in the trenches were recommended to open their mouth to balance the pressure caused by the schock waves when the bombs exploded.
But the enemy artillery positions in the West and Northwest were completely not hit !
A flying fortress B-52 D of the USAF´s 306th Bomb Wing in a carpet bombing by dropping many unguided bombs on the enemy targets in the Central Highlands of Military Region II during the Easter Offensive in 1972.