Montgomery Village, March 21, 2011 – On March 21, 1967, the battle of Suoi Tre was fought in War Zone C, north west of Saigon. This battle yielded the highest body count of the enemy in a one day battle in Vietnam. By noon of the 21st, 647 enemy bodies were collected and placed in two huge common graves dug by tanks with optional bulldozer blades. I remember eating my lunch, of cold C rations, with my legs dangling over the edge of one the graves. Had to leave before I finished as the smell got overwhelming and because as the result of a discarded cigarette, a corpse’s clothing caught fire, and the smoke was not pleasant.
First let me introduce you to a mechanized Battalion. It consisted of about 80 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC or tracks). These were propelled by tracks like a tank, and while not possessing the same armor as a tank, it was an awesome vehicle. Could go about 45 miles per hour and had amphibious capabilities. Its weapons were three machine guns, one 50 caliber and 2, 7.62 M60 machine guns. This is in addition to the individual weapons carried by each member of the squad that they transported. It was made of aluminum and protective of small arms fire and fragments from a grenade. Many armies throughout the world still use these vehicles.
The beginning of the operation was marked by missed assignments and “snafus”. After a saturating artillery fire mission to soften the original landing zone, it couldn’t be used. The original airlifting of the troops to man the new Fire Support Base Gold, was supposed to take place on March 18. Because my unit, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry (Mechanized) and an attached armored unit, the 2nd of the 34th Armor, could not secure the assigned clearing in the jungle, the operation was delayed to the next day. On the 19th, we still couldn’t make it to the assigned location to defend the landing of an artillery unit, 2nd Battalion 77th Artillery Regiment and a protective infantry battalion the 3rd Battalion 22nd Infantry Regiment (part of the Third Brigade, 4th Infantry Division), so the commanding coronel selected a different landing zone and started the operation without the prior securing of the landing zone.
As the second wave of helicopters started to land near the village of Suoi Tre, a remote controlled 155 mm. artillery round improvised explosive device went off and destroyed 2 helicopters and damaged 5 more. The rest of the landing was contested and several more helicopters were destroyed, notwithstanding the protection of several gunships that had been called to assist in the insertion.
While the helicopter units were fighting to land in the clearing near the abandoned village of Suoi Tre, the other two units of the Third Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment (us) and the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment and the attached 2nd of the 34th Armor Company, were not making much headway. While the terrain was dry, almost continuous harassment by the enemy and rough topography had us advance very slowly.
On the 20th, while our tracks came through an opening in a ridge, the leading units were ambushed, and as we watched we saw a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) hit one of the tracks, penetrate the inside of the vehicle, go through a friend of mine and explode, causing several casualties inside. My friend Frances Smith, from England, died immediately.
That night we laagered on top of a small hill. It was almost denuded of vegetation, except for a few saplings and termite mounds. We all knew that the Viet Cong gunners had this hill zeroed in and we would be mortared that night. To our surprise, we had an uneventful night, except for a rather strange thing that happened to me. While I sat under one of the trees, eating dinner, a grenade went off by mistake and a fragment of it hit the tree and landed on top of my helmet liner (hard plastic helmet that fits under the steel helmet that we wore then).
After a good night sleep we were aroused to the unusual command of “Pick up and mount up!” As we “mounted” our tracks, we were further informed that “this is the real thing”. We were also alerted that if our track became disabled, to abandon it and hitch a ride with the following vehicles. As we progressed through the jungle, we learned that our sister battalion, the 3rd of the 22nd and the 2nd of the 77th Artillery, were under heavy attack by a large enemy force. The battle had started early in the morning and some positions had been overran and a “quad fifty” had been captured by the enemy. A quad fifty is a defensive weapon that was used by artillery units. It consisted of 4 50 caliber machine guns mounted on a pivoting turret. It was an awesome weapon. The message was that unless we reached the assailed units, over 300 of our fellow soldiers would be killed or worse.
The enemy had amassed over 2,500 soldiers in the attack (later information seemed to bring the total number of attacking Viet Cong and NVA to 9,000). They were composed of 272nd VC Main Force Regiment and the 9th Division. They had gambled that such and overwhelming superiority would easily turn the battle to their advantage. Our troops were outnumbered at least 10 to 1.
The race to Fire Support Base Gold at Suoi Tre seemed to take forever, while we were scared to death, we wanted to reach the clearing before too late. I can’t remember how long it took and as we talked about it much later, there are conflicting versions of the time.
As we reached the clearing the scene that we witnessed was worth the most outrageous Hollywood set. There was gun and artillery fire everywhere. The middle of the compromised perimeter was on one edge of the clearing and appeared to be a lights show. Artillery rounds including white phosphorous and flares, grenades, smoke signal grenades and of all things beer cans, were exploding all around because of the concentrated enemy fire. Like a good red blooded American unit, they had placed the beer in the best protected place in the perimeter, right along the ammunitions.
The scene reminded me of an old cow boy movie in which the Indians had a wagon train surrounded and the cavalry comes to the rescue. I can still see the image of about 20 APC’s busting into the clearing with machine guns blasting.
We were immediately approached by soldiers from the 2nd of the 12th, asking for ammunition and water. As we progressed into the perimeter, our buddies from the 3rd of the 22nd hugged our tracks and told us we had saved their lives.
There were dead and dying enemy everywhere. Our leading tanks and tracks had caught them by surprise and many had died under the tracks of our vehicles. We could see some trying to reach the protection of the jungle and not making it. Those that we couldn’t catch up with, fell to our 50 caliber and M60 machine guns and our M-16 rifles.
I remember getting to our assigned position and getting out to set poles for our mortar gun sites. As I walked away from the track, I found several of the enemy that were in their last breath. Some of our troops were coming around making sure it was their last breath. Active combat was over by around 10:00 AM. The inventory of the enemy weapons found in the battle field included several hundred RPGs that they intended to use on our unit’s vehicles. They never got the chance, there was some talk that only one of these RPGs found a target, but did not cause significant damage, and our unit did not suffer casualties of any kind. It was an almost absolute victory. Unfortunately the units at the defensive perimeter had lost 33 dead and one missing. Some of the defensive fox holes on the perimeter held layers of dead bodies, one of our soldiers in the bottom a VC on top, and a live American soldier above with barely enough room to lie down.
During the worst part of the attack, the artillery units fired their guns point blank (in a horizontal position), using what is called canister rounds. These rounds are full of thousands of small flechettes and are the equivalent of a very large shot gun blast.
After the tanks opened the huge common graves, that were filled with the enemy dead and covered, General Westmoreland’s helicopter landed. Our unit received the “Presidential Unit Citation” in the following months, the highest award given to a unit in time of war. Only a few of them were awarded during the Vietnam conflict.
The final scene of the movie “Platoon” is a composite of the battles of FSB Gold (Suoi Tre) and FSB Burt that took place in 1968. Oliver Stone was also in the third brigade about a year later. We also have an NBA team owner and a very good movie actor, Troy Evans, among the Vietnam 2nd of the 22nd alumni. The unit uses the moniker “Vietnam Triple Deuce” for its current organization. We have had a web site and I was the webmaster for several years. Please visit http://www.VietnamTripleDeuce.org. The site’s purpose is to serve as a historic repository of our experience in Vietnam, and our lives since then.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, became one after only one year in Vietnam. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).