Blackhorse Hoofbeats

title.gif (18046 bytes)

Don Snedeker
11th ACVVC Historian


title.gif (18046 bytes)

Blackhorse Hoofbeats

By: Don Snedeker

1st Quarter, 2023

2nd Squadron, 17 April 1971

Back in The World, the latest fashion rage was hot pants and boots – a welcome distraction from the seemingly constant negative news from the anti-war movement, publication of the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, reports of increased drug use within the United States (including alarming numbers of GIs returning from Southeast Asia with heroin addiction), the death of Doors’ lead singer and counter-culture icon Jim Morrison, and charges of American war crimes highlighted by the conviction of LT William Calley for the massacre at My Lai.

In Hau Nghia Province, South Vietnam, no one was wearing hot pants and boots.

Even after the 25th (US) Division stood down in early 1971, the work of clearing the Ho Bo and Boi Loi Woods – long-time enemy redoubts – had to go on. The area had been previously cleared, but the secondary growth was inexorably reclaiming the land. Infiltration trails were no longer visible from the air, so the land clearing engineers were sent back in. US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) Rome Plow companies razed the jungle astride the Saigon corridor in big bites, day-in and day-out. However, the ARVN infantry recon company assigned to provide security had neither the mobility, nor the firepower of the Tropic Lightning units that had previously performed the mission.

It didn't take long for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to figure this out. Both companies began to sustain casualties in men and materiel. The 2nd Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel John Ballantyne (Battle 6), recalls:

The [security] support didn't work out. The US engineer plow company was taking losses. As I recall they had lost a platoon sergeant and several NCOs, lost several of their plows. They weren't getting the security they needed. On top of that, it got so bad … that the ARVN engineer Rome Plow company mutinied. They refused to go out, to leave the motor pool. They were getting shot up every day, and they didn't want to go out and continue that mission. The situation had gotten bad!

That’s when they called in the Blackhorse Cavalry.

Second Squadron moved in just north of Trang Bang and established (with the help of the 919th Engineers) Fire Support Base (FSB) Warrior at the intersection of Highway 1 and the road to Tay Ninh in mid-April 1971. In a harbinger of things to come, the column came under sniper fire almost as soon as it left the highway enroute to set up the new FSB. Two 8-inch guns joined 2/11. They would be put to good use.

The Boi Loi Woods had been an enemy stronghold for as long as anyone could remember. The French tried to establish a rubber plantation there in the 1930s, but gave up due to staunch resistance by local Viet Minh. Early in the 1960s, elite South Vietnamese forces (rangers and airborne) tried several times to clear the area of guerrillas, only to have their noses bloodied on each occasion. They gave up. US forces, primarily the Tropic Lightning Division, repeatedly attacked the woods with every weapon in the arsenal – Grunts, ACAVs, tanks, mortars and artillery, helicopter gunships, CS, Rome Plows, napalm, incendiary bombs, Agent Orange, and B-52s. All to no avail, as Charlie just waited a while and came back to rebuild his bunkers, tunnels, and caches. After a few months, he would then launch new attacks from the friendly confines of the Boi Loi Woods.

The plan was to use Rome Plows to cut wide swaths of the jungle vegetation away, thus denying the enemy refuge from aerial and ground observation. The NVA and residual Viet Cong (VC) in the area were not expected to just allow this to happen without a fight. These expectations were met, and even exceeded in the next 60 days.

The standard operating procedure (SOP) established by 2/11 was to have a recon troop with each of the Rome Plow companies and one on mini-standdown at FSB Warrior. Ballantyne describes how things worked on a daily basis. “I selected the areas day by day to be cleared and assigned the troops to run the mission. Troop commanders were then in charge. We never divulged each day’s mission to the ARVN commanders until early morning of each day’s mission (security measure).”

As expected, the enemy didn't just fade away. The first toe-to-toe engagement came early – and was repeated often.

After spending a night together at Di An (2/11’s rear area), Echo and Fox Troop moved out on 16 April to conduct an initial recon in the new area of operations. They got a taste of what was to come. Three casualties resulted from encounters with mines and booby traps, so the Troopers were especially alert the next day as they continued to gain first-hand knowledge of the terrain and the enemy. Entering the southern edge of the Boi Loi Woods, Captain (CPT) James Kelly’s (Fox 6) Fox Troop was using an ‘echelon right by platoons’ formation, providing maximum firepower to both the front and to the right side, where any enemy forces might be hiding.

The platoons happened to be in numerical order – 1st, followed by 2nd, and then 3rd. Suddenly, two Vietnamese in light blue uniforms popped up and disappeared into the woods. Sergeant (SGT) Wayne Watts, the track commander (TC) of F-25, saw them. “I was looking through my binoculars and saw an NVA regular soldier standing in the center of the hedge row motioning for us to come on in. I called Lt. [Lieutenant Philip] Lee and advised that we had NVA on the left. (To this day, I can still see that NVA pith helmet and the star with the round circle on it.) We immediately traversed to the left and got on line for an assault.”

Fox 6 directed the 2nd Platoon, under popular LT Lee (call sign Fox 26), to recon the area where the two individuals had disappeared, while 3rd Platoon, under LT Thomas Christian (Fox 36), provided overwatching fires.

Soon after entering the wooded area, 2nd Platoon came under an intense barrage of automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) from the 3rd Battalion, 101st (NVA) Regiment. First a Sheridan and then Lee’s Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle (ACAV) were hit by RPGs, knocking both vehicles out of action. The RPG that hit his ACAV wounded Lee – but didn't kill him.

SGT Allen Burnworth, who had transferred to Fox from Charlie Troop when 1/11 went home, was the thumper (M79 grenade launcher) gunner on the rear deck of the Sheridan (F-28) that was hit first. He says: “When the action gets heavy, you go into slow motion … That’s how it actually happens”. He was pumping grenades into the bamboo when something caught his attention. “I happened to look over to the left and I saw something fly out of the shrapnel vest of Lieutenant Lee. At that point, it was slow motion … It took a moment for me to realize that he’d just been shot and that was the bullet that came out the back.” The bullet had cut across Lee’s shoulder blades and severed his spinal cord.

The crew of F-28 fired over a dozen main gun rounds – 152mm canister – but then had to wait for compressed air to build back up before they could fire again. The delay proved deadly. While waiting, they were hit by an RPG. Ken Smith recalls that the RPG hit “right over the top of the driver’s hatch and underneath the gun [the ideal aiming point]. I mean, this guy must have been an expert, right?” The heat from the blast welded the driver’s hatch shut.

Smoke started coming up out of the turret. At least one caseless ammo round ignited and flames came out of both turret hatches. F-28 “rocked back like it had shot three rounds at one time,” according to Burnworth. Platoon Sergeant (PSG) Beck came out of the turret and said in his German accent: “‘Get the hell out of here.’ He didn't have to tell me twice, because it was on fire.”

Specialist 5 (SP5) John ‘Doc’ Balas was everywhere that day, attending to LT Lee and the others on his ACAV, then moving to help Beck and his crew. Despite the withering enemy fire, Doc Balas saved five lives on that Boi Loi Woods battlefield on 17 April 1971.

Fox 6 moved forward to the sound of the guns, but he, too, was seriously wounded in the arm by AK47 rifle fire. Kelly’s ACAV was hit by at least one RPG. Clearly, the NVA gunners had listened to their instructors and were aiming for the vehicles with two antennas, the sign of a command vehicle (Kelly’s ACAV, Lee’s ACAV, and Beck’s Sheridan). This left Fox 36 in command; LT Christian ordered the troop to withdraw, leaving three vehicles (two ACAVs and a Sheridan) behind. By this time, it was obvious that the Troopers had found a numerically superior, well dug-in enemy force, and Blackhorse SOP was to let the artillery and gunships pound such a position before assaulting it again. Besides, there were a number of casualties that needed to be evacuated, and there was the command arrangement to get sorted out. CPT Floyd McGough, flying the 2/11 Command & Control (C&C) helicopter, made the first of his ten landings to evacuate the most severely wounded.

The question of overall command was settled when Major (MAJ) Don Borden (the 2/11 Operations Officer) landed and took command of the troops on the ground. After evacuating the wounded, Borden led five ACAVs in a direct assault on the enemy bunkers, as the rest of Fox Troop attacked from the flank. The objective of this assault was to retrieve the damaged vehicles and recover anyone who was still alive. However, in the words of an after action report, the “enemy held its fire until the assaulting vehicles were within fifty meters of their position, then once again laid down a heavy volley of RPD [machine gun], RPG and AK47 fire. As he reached a position twenty meters short of the disabled ‘Sheridan’, Maj. Borden came under intense RPG fire and his vehicle was hit. Immediately, the vehicle began to burn”.

Despite the heavy fire, Fox Troopers were able to hook tow cables to the two damaged ACAVs and haul them out of the contact area. Borden switched to another ACAV and pulled everyone back to allow the artillery (air strikes were not available at the time) and gunships to work over the enemy fortifications.

Three times, the artillery and helicopter gunships blasted the target area, and three times the ACAVs and Sheridans of Fox Troop, reinforced by two platoons from Echo Troop, assaulted the NVA bunkers. Second-HOW alone fired more than 200 rounds into that small piece of Vietnamese real estate. Finally on the third assault, the two Echo Troop platoons broke through the first line of bunkers and swept across the objective. CPT Thomas Gray, Echo 6, told his two platoons to establish blocking positions on the far side of the bunkers, while Fox Troop covered a third side and helicopter gunships completed the fourth side of the box.

The enemy, now completely surrounded, fought on with RPGs and AKs, so Gray sent in dismounted teams to clear them out. Fox Troop’s SGT Mike ‘Chief’ Aguilar was one of those in the dismounted element. His ACAV had been engaged by an NVA in a bunker, who would pop up, shoot, and drop back down when the ACAV returned fire. Aguilar grabbed some hand grenades and jumped off the track. His TC asked: “‘Chief, where you going?’ He said: ‘I’m going to get that SOB’… Chief had no fear.” Aguilar threw a grenade into the bunker, it exploded with lots of smoke. There was a female NVA soldier inside, still alive. Aguilar and the other dismounts thought she was dead. Burnworth and his thumper had joined the Troopers on the ground sweep. He says: “Chief reaches down in for what he thought was a body and she was still alive enough that she bit him. He swore and said: ‘She bit me. Give me that M16 … After 20 rounds, she didn't bite anymore.”

The contact started at 1440 hours and lasted until dusk three hours later. All but one of Fox Troop’s officers were casualties on 17 April; the first sergeant had to temporarily assume command of Echo Troop, as all of their officers were wounded, too. Allan Burnworth summed up the day’s action. “We got our ass kicked … We really did have our things together that day – but more so after that … After that, our crews worked like a well-oiled machine.”

Even four decades later, John Ballantyne recalls the events of 17 April, a day he describes as “the most nerve-wracking day during my tenure with the squadron.” For the previous five months, 2/11 Troopers had been engaging mostly loosely organized VC units that did not stand and fight. The NVA soldiers encountered on their first day in the Boi Loi Woods were professionals. As he recalls: “We were clearly up against better organized and more determined NVA units with plenty of local VC support.” It was “a learning experience for the squadron … Prior to this contact, our mindset had been to instantly react to contact and charge in with weapons blazing … We adjusted our tactics accordingly and made it SOP to precede any movement into contact with suitable artillery and air preparation.”

There was one other lesson learned – but it was one the Squadron couldn't do anything about. The absence of Hotel Company and its 17 M48 tanks was felt during the 17 April contact, as well as in all subsequent fights. The armored staying power and bunker-busting firepower of these tanks were, according to Battle 6, “sorely missed”. The Sheridan was fine, but some jobs just called for 52 tons of American steel.

Message Page


Home Page