1st Quarter, 2024
Battle of the
Crossroads, 21 January 1970
As Senior Captain Nguyen (not his real name), commander of the K1 Battalion, ran through the jungle, he couldn’t help but think about what had gone wrong. He retraced every step, from their initial reconnaissance to springing the ambush, for he knew that his regimental commander would ask him to do so once in the self-critique session that followed every battle.
The reconnaissance had gone off undetected. He and the battalion political officer, Lai, and the commanders of the 1st and 2nd companies had scouted the area, which turned out to be good ground for an ambush. The one ridgeline overlooked the other, covering the trail that the dreaded tanks and box-shaped carriers that had so many machineguns would use. He recognized that he had to hold the high ground along both ridge lines in order to defeat the heavy firepower of the American imperialists. The high ground – and the superior morale of his soldiers – would overcome firepower, he had told himself. He even asked Political Officer Lai to be especially forceful in building the soldiers’ morale before they moved into position, for he knew it would be a tough fight.
After returning from his reconnaissance, he had developed his plan and then called in the battalion’s officers and senior sergeants for a rehearsal. The rehearsal had gone off without a hitch. He had stressed the need for fire discipline to ensure that the Americans fell into the trap. The first company had to draw them to the first ridgeline, so that they would then flank themselves to the fire of the second company. The division commander had honored them by reinforcing his battalion with recoilless rifles, extra rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, and heavy machine guns. Senior Captain Nguyen explained the role of each of these weapons during the rehearsal. The recoilless rifles, with their superior accuracy, would fire the first shot. Once the Americans had moved toward the fire – as they always did – the RPG gunners would open fire. The mortars would begin firing into the midst of the armored vehicles, making the crews keep their heads down and spoiling their return fire. And the .51-caliber machine guns would engage the inevitable helicopters that came to reinforce the vehicles in the kill zone.
The trap would then be set, and the second company would spring it with a deadly barrage into the enemy’s flank from recoilless rifles, RPGs, and AK47s. At this point, the hated Yankee invaders would be bewildered, caught in a crossfire and unable to react. They would be slaughtered.
By the end of the rehearsal, everyone said they understood their roles. Senior Captain Nguyen was a little concerned, however, as there were so many new faces in his battalion, even among the officers. The losses suffered in August and September had been replaced, but it was hard to replace experience. So many of these new soldiers looked so young, boys who should have still been in school or helping their fathers in the fields at home in North Vietnam. But the Party must know what they were doing, and it was Senior Captain Nguyen’s socialist duty to mold these boys – no, he must think of them as young men – these young men into soldiers, to give them the experience they needed to win the inevitable victory.
Captain Lai’s lecture had gone well. The political officer instilled the mental toughness needed to accomplish the mission. He had related how each individual soldier’s tasks helped to accomplish the Party’s goals. OK, so some of the veterans had looked at each other knowingly when the political officer said how the 141st Regiment had killed 645,000 Americans and their South Vietnamese puppets the previous year. But the new men believed it, and it gave them pride to be part of such a glorious regiment. Senior Captain Nguyen knew that it would be this pride that would give them the edge over the decadent Americans. So, too, would the new weapons, the new uniforms, and the plentiful rations of rice that they had been issued before moving into their final ambush positions. But most of all, the battalion commander thought, the red and blue scarves that were ceremoniously presented to each man, these scarves would make up for the lack of experience. They would sustain the men when the artillery shells and aerial rockets came crashing down. They would give courage to his soldiers to stand up and aim truly at the oncoming tanks. They would help his battalion prevail. They had to.
At least that is what he had hoped, Senior Captain Nguyen thought ruefully as he ran away from the pursuing helicopters and tanks.
The battalion moved from its border sanctuary following standard operating procedure (SOP). The sapper-reconnaissance company led the march column, followed by Captain Nguyen and the rest of his command group, a rifle company, the communications company, heavy weapons (mortars) company, the remaining two rifle companies, and a rear security element. The battalion moved into the ambush positions on the two ridgelines under the cover of darkness on 20 January 1970. His men worked hard digging the Z-shaped trenches and bunkers with overhead cover, but they had done well. The firing slits were close to the ground, virtually invisible from more than 50 meters away. The logs on top of the positions were well camouflaged, making them all but impossible to be seen from the American helicopters that roamed so freely over this part of northern Binh Long Province. From these positions, his gunners would have an easy time sighting in on the armored vehicles as they moved up the hill.
Senior Captain Nguyen didn’t know it, but his carefully laid ambush plan was doomed to fail from the start. First Squadron (minus Alpha Troop and Delta Company) was operating out of Fire Support Basse (FSB) Dennis, with the mission of conducting reconnaissance and combined operations with companies of the 9th (South Vietnamese) Infantry Regiment in the area of Loc Ninh. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) John Norton had served as Bengal 6 since September 1969, so he was familiar with the area and how to get things done. When he learned on the 20th that airborne sensors had found two ‘hot spots’ north of FSB Dennis, he decided to send Bravo and Charlie Troops in that direction the following day. Recognizing that he had no ‘pile-on’ force (other than Howitzer Battery) immediately at his disposal, he told the two troop commanders to stay within mutually supporting distance as they reconned the area looking for the source of the hot-spot readings.
And they did. They crossed Thunder Road (Highway 13) and headed for the Suoi Nau creek. Noticing that the rubber plantation workers were all moving out of the area, the Charlie Troop commander (Charlie 6) told his Troopers to be alert. As the troop approached one of the ambush positions, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 141st (North Vietnamese Army) Regiment, took the tracks under fire with a .51-caliber machine gun. Following SOP, the Charlie Troop ACAVs and Sheridans turned on line and attacked uphill toward the ambush.
Meanwhile, Bravo Troop had moved further to the northeast and then began to parallel Charlie Troop. When the initial ambush was sprung, the Bravo Troop Commander (Bravo 6) ordered his platoons to move eastward to reinforce Charlie. However, the inexperience of the enemy replacements came into play at this point, as they prematurely opened fire before Bravo Troop had completely flanked itself to their second ambush position. The Bravo Troop ACAVs and Sheridans immediately turned and charged toward the new threat. Without warning, additional enemy soldiers opened up on the rear and flanks of the Bravo Troop vehicles. Bravo 6 redirected one of his platoons to engage the new enemy threat, while the rest of the troop surged into their counterattack. Recoilless rifle, RPG, and mortar fire rained in on Bravo and Charlie Troops, but, in the words of the after-action report, “it did not deter the armor crush.”
Bengal 6 and his operations officer, Captain (CPT) Ron Caldwell alternated orbiting over the battlefield. As LTC Norton’s helicopter ran low on fuel, it was replaced by Caldwell in a second helicopter. Together, they called in artillery, Blue Max helicopter gunships, and an air strike to seal off the potential escape routes from the two enemy ambushes. CPT Caldwell described the scene from above: “‘It was rubber with leaves, and in that canopy, I couldn’t see the troops. They were popping smoke almost continually for someone.’” Caldwell ordered his pilot, 1LT Michael Huff, to go to tree-top level in order to see what was going on inside the rubber. When the return fire prevented the medevac helicopters from landing, Huff landed and together they evacuated the most seriously wounded.
On the ground, the fighting – which was really two separate firefights within sight of each other – was fierce. The initial volley of RPGs and recoilless rifles disabled one of the lead Sheridans, commanded (TC’d) by Platoon Sergeant (PSG) William McGuire. Despite his serious wounds, he stayed behind his .50-caliber suppressing the enemy fire and allowing the remainder of the vehicles to orient on and charge into the ambush. Staff Sergeant (SSG) Floyd Brooks and Specialist 4 (SP4) Bobby Byrd dismounted their vehicle and ran through the hail of rockets and rifle fire to the aid of their platoon sergeant, dragging him behind the vehicle and out of the raging firefight. SP5 Leslie Lincoln and SP5 Brent Tanner, the Charlie Troop medics, rushed to the scene and administered life-saving first aid to the casualties. Once they were sure their platoon sergeant was OK, Brooks and Byrd returned to their vehicle and rejoined the fight. Not far away, Sergeant (SGT) John Reitweisner was in the cupola of his ACAV when it was struck by an RPG. He stayed at his battle station, despite being exposed to a hail of enemy fire. When a second RPG struck the vehicle, Reitweisner was mortally wounded.
The enemy’s recoilless rifles, RPGs, mortars, AK47s, and caliber .51s were no match for the mounted M60s, caliber .50s, and 152mm, and both troops soon gained fire superiority. Bravo Troop, downhill and on the left flank, switched directions to roll up the enemy along the long leg of the L-shaped ambush. Air strikes sealed off the battlefield along the dry streambed that ran northward out of the rubber and artillery pounded the flanks, while the helicopter gunships engaged the caliber .51 positions with rockets and miniguns. Bravo Troop continued to move northward (up the hill), sweeping the ridge clean of enemy and then heading to link up with Charlie Troop one ridge line higher up. As the official after-action report describes:
Each Troop Commander had changed direction three times. When the troops returned fire and won fire superiority, they ceased firing to pinpoint the enemy locations. When the enemy’s strongest points of fire were discovered, the troops assaulted. The two troops proceeded slowly, but consistently while maintaining fire superiority. Since they were always assaulting up-hill, and without dismounted troops, they could advance only when sure that no enemy remained to their rear or flanks.
In a desperate attempt to regain the initiative, the enemy commander ordered a platoon out of their bunkers in order to flank the Sheridans and ACAVs. This only made the NVA infantrymen easier targets for the Blackhorse gunners, and the platoon was “soon cut to pieces”.
Second Squadron’s Fox and Golf Troop came to pile on. Documents found during the sweep of the ambush positions revealed the location of the base camp for the K1 Battalion, and that’s where Bravo, Charlie, and Fox Troops went next. They overran the now-empty camp, uncovering more documents and equipment.
At its height, the fighting was intense on both ridgelines. Nowhere was it more intense than in front of SP4 Bill Faulkner’s ACAV. As Bravo Troop was advancing against the dug-in foe, Faulkner, an M60 gunner, saw an enemy RPG team that was deployed behind the advancing ACAVs and Sheridans. His Silver Star citation describes what happened next.
Specialist Faulkner immediately eliminated them with accurate fire from his machinegun. As the troop moved over the enemy positions, Specialist Faulkner jumped from his vehicle to clear the bunkers of enemy troops. As Specialist Faulkner approached one of the bunkers, an enemy soldier threw a grenade at him. He immediately charged the enemy position and subdued the enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat. Specialist Faulkner then continued to search the bunkers for enemy troops until the enemy broke contact.
At the cost of one Blackhorse Trooper dead (Charlie Troop’s John Reitweisner, who was awarded a Silver Star for his actions on 21 January), 15 wounded (7 requiring evacuation), and two Sheridans and two ACAVs combat loss, the counter-ambush and pile-on tactics of the Blackhorse Regiment had faced “a well-armed, numerically superior enemy on his own choice of field, and beat him” – killing 41 in the process. The Blackhorse leadership didn’t even try to correct the record when the bodies of 28 additional NVA soldiers were found about a month later and attributed to the Battle of the Crossroads. Nobody in the media really cared, anyway.
But Senior Captain Nguyen did not have to worry about his reputation. The propaganda writers in Hanoi handed him the victory on paper that his battalion couldn’t achieve on the ground. According to an article in the 8 April edition of the People’s Army newspaper: “During one day of fighting- -on 21 January- -in the Loc Ninh area, the PLAF [People’s Liberation Armed Forces] wiped out 500 U.S. troops, destroyed nearly 150 armored vehicles of the 11th U.S. armored regiment, and downed 15 aircraft which came to their rescue.”