by W.S. McCallum
Bien Hoa Province, September 1968. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, in conjunction with ARVN forces, is conducting a series of search and sweep operations to clear the province of ongoing VC activity.
35 km north-east of Saigon, along the banks of the Đồng Nai River, lies Thiện Tân, a sleepy village whose inhabitants have reported VC activity in recent times.
Dawn is about to break, with the village yet to come to life...
A road south leads past the entrance to a large quarry.
Market gardens are located on the other side of this side road.
Road DT768 runs through the ville.
Down the other end of the village, a second road runs off DT768, through trees and rice paddies.
Thiện Tân’s inhabitants are about to be roused from their sleep, as a patrol from the 36th ARVN Rangers approaches the ville from the south-western end.
At around 4 am on 13 September 1968, a platoon from the 36th ARVN Rangers quietly moves in from the outskirts of Thiện Tân, then begins moving from house to house.
They are spread out, but well-co-ordinated in their sweep.
Peeking through windows as they pass the various buildings, all they see are bewildered inhabitants, who are quietly told to stay indoors.
Just when they think the ville is looking empty, they make contact with a squad from the D-1 Sapper Battalion, which has deployed in the village on a night ambush operation.
The Sappers’ fire however, is wild and erratic, and the Rangers quickly return accurate fire and cause the first VC casualties:
The other Ranger squads from across the road swiftly move in for a flank attack.
The resulting crossfire leaves the Sappers in the field getting hammered.
But the Rangers section performing the flanking manoevre has been too hasty and, seeing it failing to cover its own flank, another Sapper section moves in to hit it from behind.
The first Rangers squad that engaged is however on its toes, and spotting this sneak attack through a gap in the houses, opens fire and manages to pin them down.
One stand is cut down, while another is suppressed, with the squad leader dodging for cover.
Cowering behind a fence, he watches his whole squad get blown away.
By the time the ongoing firefight in the half light has reached this point, it is already 5.40 am.
Contact is lost at this point, with the remaining disoriented Sappers going to ground behind various buildings.
The ARVN Rangers successfully make contact with part of Task Force Privette (part of 1st Squadron, 11th Armoured Cavalry), which hurtles up the second side road towards Thiện Tân.
The detachment from Task Force Privette throws caution to the wind in the hope that they will cut off the VC in the village from the rear.
But the Sappers’ night ambush deployment includes multiple fields of fire...
The lead track takes a direct hit from the Sappers’ recoilless rifle and explodes while the troopers inside frantically dive out of the vehicle.
The following tracks have to slam on their brakes and there is a pileup and ensuing mayhem.
Just when it looked like things couldn’t get any worse...
... Another squad of VC concealed in a farmhouse courtyard opens fire on the troopers who survived the explosion of the lead track, wiping them out.
And an RPG-2 KOs the second track.
Various troopers bail out, but they are suppressed by heavy fire.
The last two M113s have to make a quick decision whether to remain in this deadly fire zone or scoot.
They decide to stay and open up with their machine guns, pinning the first VC stand.
It is now 7 am, but daylight will bring no salvation from above. As much as they would like to, the Americans are unable to call in artillery or air support as the village is not a free-fire zone, and its inhabitants have not been evacuated.
The Sappers in the courtyard are showing no signs of wavering, and the firefight goes back and forth.
The Sappers’ commander observes from the intersection, wondering whether the time has come to withdraw...
The order goes through to the heavily depleted Sapper squad that made initial contact with the ARVN Rangers and went to ground in the field to pull back.
Around the same time, the two remaining M113s, sensing that it is only a matter of time before they get hit by an RPG round from the farmhouse, leave the troopers already on the ground to cover them as they scoot forward and out of the Sappers’ fire zone.
The Sappers in the field, still caught in crossfire, are having a difficult time withdrawing.
Only one stand survives to move back, but is soon pinned.
The M113s move forward into the ville.
They catch the remnants of the second Sapper section from behind...
... and wipe it out with machine gun fire.
Surging forward across the DT 768 proves to be a mistake however.
The Sappers have a second recoilless rifle sighted along the length of the road.
A third track is KOed!
The Free World advance is broken, and in the resulting confusion, the Sappers slip away to the north-east, up DT 768. Although the Sappers lost over 1/3rd of their strength, mainly due to the disciplined fire from the ARVN Rangers, the Free World forces have sustained unacceptable losses and the Sappers' ambush was an outstanding victory.
© W.S. McCallum 29 June 2017
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