Tales From Nam
To some it seemed a Rubicon crossed. On the morning of May 1, as President Nixon addressed the American people, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment tanks slogged across an open marsh, forded a narrow stream, and pushed into the Fishhook area of Cambodia, seventy miles north of Saigon. The Blackhorse was thrusting into a network of Communist basecamps and supply areas which the enemy had been using for the past five years to launch attacks on allied troops and Vietnamese population centers. And it wasnt alone.
To the west, a battalion of armor and a battalion of mechanized infantry from the 25th Division were pushing up from Katum. To the east, a squadron of ARVN armor was moving to seal the flank of the Fishhook. And three battalions of the Third ARVN Airborne Brigade were being inserted well inside the enemy base area, ahead of the armor thrust.
In a sense, its classic tank warfare, Colonel Donn A. Starry, 41st Commander of the Blackhorse, said afterward. Airmobile forces are inserted in deep, and the cavalry links up with them.
A classic armor tactic indeed, but it was no breezy cavalry charge. Instead, it was slow, deliberate, and methodical. Second Squadron led the way, with Colonel Starry in an armored assault vehicle near the front of the column. Third Squadron followed slightly to the east. First Squadron, for the moment, remained in Vietnam securing the fire support bases below the border and keeping the supply lines open.
The armor column rumbled slowly over flat open fields and through double canopy jungle and bamboo thickets. It swept through an abandoned NVA village and then, in the late afternoon, met its first serious resistance. An Air Cav Troop Light Observation Helicopter, reconning to the right flank of the lead vehicles, spotted movement near a zig-zagging trench line. The LOH engaged the movement, and suddenly the whole trench line opened fire. Moments later the armored vehicles were hit from three sides, but they were ready. They blasted back with .50 caliber machine guns and Sheridan cannister rounds, then called in tactical air strikes. When the smoke cleared, fifty enemy lay dead on the battlefield.
The sharp contact also claimed two American lives. PFC Paul M. Dailey of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and SF4 Keith S. Arneson of Portland, Oregorn, were killed
by a rocket propelled grenade. They were the first U.S. soldiers to die in combat in Cambodia.
The second day, the armor column continued in a northwesterly direction toward the projected link-up point with the 5th Battalion of the Third ARVN Airborne Brigade. Now deep in the enemy sanctuary, the Blackhorse troopers passed numerous supply dumps and bunker complexes. A scout helicopter spotted an extensive laundry facility and a tactical airstrike festooned the trees for hundreds of meters around with enemy clothes and uniforms.
But it was not until the next morning, when the link-up was complete, that the search of the enemy base areas began in earnest. Actually, very little searching was necessary. For there was an abundance of hootches, bunkers, vegetable gardens, and food and weapons caches. An almost festive mood prevailed.
One LOH pilot used his chopper to round up a bunch of stray water buffalo and then drove them into the forward command post. E Troop found a cluster of bicycle parts, heaps of rice and vegetables, and a 35 lb bag peanuts. M Company uncovered about 200 cubic feet of rockets and grenades that now would never be used against Americans. Best of all, the enemy wasnt shootinghe was giving up. Five NVA soldiers, abandoned by their units, were brought in without a fight.
By all accounts, it was a good day, and the next day promised to be even more productive. But that night a change of mission crackled over the radio. Finding the enemy caches would be left to the ARVNs; the 11th Cav was to drive 25 miles northeast to Snuol, a Cambodian city at the junction of tactically crucial Routes 1 and 13. The regiment was given 48 hours to get there and root the Communist forces from the city.
The thrust into the Fishhook had been slow and deliberate, but now it was time to move. In the early morning of the fourth day, the Blackhorse armor crashed along a narrow trail, heading for the asphalt of Route 7. By one oclock in the afternoon, the first vehicles were on the blacktop racing north.
On the road the tracks hit speeds up to 35 miles per hour. The last time we did this was during Tet of 68, when we headed back to reinforce Long Binh, Colonel Starry remarked. But it wasnt all a wild dash; the Communists saw to that. Understanding the value of the road, they had taken precautions. Three key bridges on the way to Snuol had been destroyed. So three rivers had to be spanned by Cav ingenuityand Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges.
Heading north to Snuol, the Blackhorse cavalrymen rolled through several small hamlets. Cambodian villagers stared open-mouthed at the growling machinery. Some tossed the Americans fruit and received boxes of C rations in return. Instead of the familiar V sign, the Cambodians, hands folded, rendered the traditional Buddhist bow of greeting. For the troopers it was a new experience, and inevitably it led to comparisons. Here when you give the people some Cs, they thank you, one said. But not everyone liked the idea of Cambodia and someone else remarked, Me, Id rather be back in War Zone C.
But they were a long way from War Zone C. Lead elements of Second Squadron spent the fourth night between the first two bridge sites. By the afternoon of the next day they had crossed the third river and were forging into Snuol.
There the enemy was waiting. Probing the city, a reconnaissance element from E Troop received a fusillade of small arms and RPG fire. In short order the tracks were reinforced by H Company tanks. They blazed away at the hidden enemy for nearly thirty minutes, before calling in tactical airstrjkes. When the armored vehicles finally pulled back, the southern portion of Snuol was smoking rubble. And an estimated NVA regiment was silent.
Meanwhile, on the airstrip just south of the city, Colonel Starry, Major Frederick M. Franks, the 2nd Squadron Operations Officer, and four others were attempting to coax two enemy soldiers from their bunkers. One came out, but the other didnt. Instead, he threw a Chicom grenade, wounding the six Americans.
But the enemy paid heavily for his brief stand at Snuol. Field reports set the number of dead at 138. Two NVA soldiers and two .51 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns were captured.
The morning of the sixth day, 11th ACR tracks rolled through the city, meeting no resistance. Some of the 6,000 Cambodian civilians, who had left Snuol two days earlier, now began to trickle back. The Blackhorse controlled the road junction. And the enemy was fleeing north.