Camp Cai (A-412) Mortar Attack


By Richard H Dick James

55 years ago today, 7 March 1966, I was a SGT E-5 assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group in South Vietnam. I was assigned as the Demolition Specialist at Camp Cai (A-412), but because of my AIT (Advanced Individual Training) training on mortars and recoilless rifles, as well as my secondary MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of 112.23 (aka 11C4S Infantry Crew-Served Weapons), I was also the designated 4.2” mortar gunner for the team. On 7 March our camp was shelled by the Viet Cong. We returned fire with our 81mm and 4.2-inch mortars. The melee lasted for three hours. Being trained on the 4.2 (called the four-deuce by soldiers), I acted as gunner on it for the three hours (from noon to 3 p.m.). I made the mistake of being in the mortar pit the whole time without a shirt on. I guess the adrenaline overtook the smarts. I ended up with a doozer of a sunburn. It was very painful and a couple days later the burn on my back turned to blisters. A lot of rounds were traded back and forth during the firefight. Happily, nobody in our camp was injured. Camp A Shau (Special Forces Detachment A-102) was an isolated camp located southwest of Hue, about five miles from the Laotian border. The only nearby residents were an unknown number of unfriendly Katu tribesmen, who were considered to be either Viet Cong or, at the very least, Viet Cong sympathizers. Friendly contact was never made with them. The camp’s mission was border surveillance and infiltration route interdiction. The camp was located near three major enemy infiltration routes from Laos, and was manned by 220 CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group, aka VN “mercenaries”), 10 U.S. Special Forces, 6 Vietnamese Special Forces (aka LLDB), several interpreters, and 41 civilians. Because of its location, the camp interfered with enemy infiltration from the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. That made it a target. Enemy documents had been captured by two patrols on 18-19 February and 24-25 February. The documents indicated that Camp A Shau was the target of reconnaissance operations, in preparation for an attack. Not long thereafter, two North Vietnamese Army defectors surrendered to the camp. The defectors reported that the camp was to be attacked by four NVA battalions, on 11 or 12 March. Daily aircraft recon overflights were requested and granted. The overflights flew from 4 through 8 March, reporting numerous weapons positions, freshly dug personnel positions, and anti-aircraft emplacements detected. The overflights confirmed an enemy buildup in the vicinity of Camp A Shau. A Shau requested emergency reinforcements. I Corps headquarters denied the request. Detachment C-1 requested reinforcements from headquarters at Nha Trang. The 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) commander dispatched a 141-man company of Nungs from the Special Forces Mike Force. They arrived at 1640 hours on 7 March. Included in the Mike Force contingent were seven U.S. Special Forces troops and seven interpreters. On 7 and 8 March, patrols and night ambushes were sent out from the camp, but no contact was made. The LLDB Camp Commander ordered the camp on general alert the evening of the 8th. All camp personnel took up defensive position, and remained there. At 1930 hours an enemy squad was seen at the north end of camp. Mortar fire was directed at them. At about 2300 hours camp defenders reported hearing digging sounds south of camp. At 0130 hours, the morning of the 9th, a perimeter claymore mine was fired in the direction the sounds of wire cutting were heard. At 0350, hell broke loose, as extremely accurate mortar rounds hit camp. The mortar fire continued until 0630 hours, heavily damaging many key points in the camp, as well as killing two USASF, seven Mike Force, and a civilian. Mortar and sniper fire continued throughout the day, causing light casualties in camp. At about 0430, an estimated two companies of NVA probed the camp’s south wall, but were beaten back by heavy defensive fire. Although air support arrived at 1100 hours, it wasn’t very helpful, due to poor visibility and low clouds. It had to be discontinued at 1500 hours, due to lower ceilings. The NVA had taken advantage of the bad weather, knowing it would hamper allied air strikes and reinforcements. At 1300 hours an Air Force AC-47 “Spooky,” aka “Puff the Magic Dragon,” arrived on scene. It was the recipient of intense anti-aircraft fire, which caused the aircraft to crash. Three crewmen were KIA, while three others were rescued. Communications and medical supplies were dropped just outside the camp, at 1415 hours. They were retrieved by camp personnel. At 1630, a C-123 airdropped much needed ammunition to the camp, but about 50% of the load missed the camp, and was irretrievable. Another airdrop of supplies at 1700 hours, by a CV-2, landed inside and outside the camp. At 0400 the morning of the 10th, mortar and recoilless rifle fire destroyed most of the camp facilities, knocked out half of the crew-served weapons (mortars, machineguns, etc.), and resulted in temporary loss of communications. The barrage continued through the day. The enemy assaulted en masse at 0500. Unbelievably, the 141st CIDG Company in A Shau joined the NVA attackers, turning their guns on the very men who were sent there to help them. Treachery of this magnitude was unheard of in South Vietnam prior to this event. The southeast corner of the camp was overrun, resulting in close combat inside the camp. Air strikes were called for, at 0600 hours. The strikes were aimed at enemy forces occupying the breached walls, as well as enemy units forming on the other side of the airstrip, for another assault. The air strikes were deadly for the enemy but couldn’t save the camp. By 0830, only the north wall and the communications bunker remained held by friendly forces. The remaining USASF and Mike Force personnel, led by CPT David Blair, attempted to retake the south wall several times, but were unsuccessful. Only two mortars, a 60mm and an 81mm, remained intact. By 1200 hours those last mortars had been destroyed. More air strikes were called for, at 1000 hours, to bomb and strafe the entire camp, except for the communications bunker and the north wall. The air strikes managed to temporarily keep the enemy from the friendly-held positions. A resupply of water and ammunition was attempted by a CV-2 at 1215, but the entire drop fell into the part of camp controlled by the enemy. At the same time, an A1E Skyraider was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire. The aircraft managed to crash-land on the runway. A second Skyraider landed on the runway, picked up the pilot of the downed aircraft, and managed to safely depart the area. The enemy was seen to be massing by the airstrip, so more airstrikes were requested at 1415 hours. The airstrikes caused the enemy forces to disperse, causing heavy enemy casualties. That did not, however, ease the intense enemy firing into the friendly forces. The situation became grave by 1430 hours. All but a few crew-served weapons had been destroyed, ammunition was in extremely short supply, and friendly forces had been without food and water for the past 36 hours. Friendly forces within the camp could no longer launch any offensive actions against the enemy. At 1500 hours, a decision was made by III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters to send helicopters to evacuate the camp. Weapons and SOIs in the communications bunker were destroyed, prior to 1700 hours, at which time the men there withdrew to the north wall. At 1720 the camp was ordered to evacuate. Troops began evacuating north, toward the landing zone (LZ). The SF Mobile Strike Force provided rear guard support. Sixteen H-34 helicopters arrived, to evacuate the camp. Heavy enemy ground fire at the LZ resulted in heavy friendly casualties and the downing of two of the helicopters. Because of a low ceiling, some helicopters weren’t able to touch down. Only 65 personnel were evacuated. Seven surviving Special Forces men, forty mobile strike force troops, fifty CIDG, and the crews from both downed helicopters retreated into the jungle, to escape and evade the enemy. On the 11th and 12th small groups of friendly forces were sighted, and rescued, by rescue aircraft. The evasion had lasted three days. Further searches for survivors came up empty. According to the after-action report, there were 434 individuals in camp when the attack began. That included 220 CIDG, 143 Mike Force personnel, 51 civilians, 17 USASF, 6 VNSF, and 7 interpreters. Of those, 248 were declared MIA (missing in action). Of the MIAs, 172 were believed KIA, including 45 of the 51 civilians, 5 USASF, 1 VNSF, and 6 of the 7 interpreters. There were 101 WIA (wounded in action), including all the 12 USASF who remained. The attack pointed out that the enemy was willing to sacrifice heavy casualties, to gain a psychological advantage, and overrun camps that were detrimental to NVA’s freedom of movement. The camp was not rebuilt. It was an example of the weakness of the border surveillance camps. They were so isolated that they were susceptible to being overrun by the enemy, any time the enemy deemed the camp to be a major detriment to their activities. The camps were, however, important enough in the grand scheme of things, to keep them, despite the danger involved. Those camps were vital when it came to their surveillance and intelligence collection missions. A direct consequence of the lack of support at A-Shau was the formation of Mobile Guerrilla Forces (MGF), in the fall of 1966. Select Mobile Strike Force personnel were used to form the MGF. The MGF was an unconventional unit, specializing at infiltrating into, and operating in, the enemy’s base areas, as well as employing guerrilla tactics against the VC guerrillas. Their operations included short and extended operations and were usually code-named Blackjack operations. They operated as independent units, with no planned reinforcement or support during their operations. Infiltration was accomplished through whatever means were considered best, least obtrusive, and/or available. Resupply was ingenious. Because of the need of their location remaining unknown, Douglas A-1E ground support aircraft participated in fake air strikes. Empty 500-pound bomb cannisters were filled with supplies to be delivered to the troops, mainly food, batteries, and ammunition. The A-1Es would then place an “air strike” in the vicinity of the MGF. From Book #3, of my four-book set of “SLURP SENDS!” Books #1 (“SLURP SENDS! On Becoming a Green Beret Book 1”). # 2 (SLURP SENDS! Experiences of an A-Team Green Beret Book 2”), #3 (“SLURP SENDS! Experiences of a Green Beret In Vietnam Book 3”) and #4 (“SLURP SENDS! A Green Beret’s Experiences In Vietnam Book 4”) are all available on Amazon, or from me.PHOTO: Our new mortar bunker (my photo)SLURP SENDS!


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