QuarterHorse Stories

BATTLE OF AP TAU O

Army Times - 13 July 1966


DI AN, Vietnam--The name "Benchmark 69" may not prickle the skin of the average american as would "The Battle of Britain" or "Heartbreak Ridge", but that name will be well remembered by those familiar with the area to which it refers. The devastation wrought on that desolate strech of jungle road by Alpha Trp., 1st Sqdn, 4th Cav, 1st Inf Div, will go into the annals of that regiment and join names like The Battle of Nashville, Defeat of the Mores, Normandy and Utah Beach.
After having received a mission from MG W.E. DePuy, Big Red One commander, Alpha Trp moved north of it's base camp at Phu Loi to reinforce other 1st Div elements deep in War Zone "C". Driving rapidly up the desolate road to secure a threatened town, the troopers warily scanned the roadsides as civilization disappeared and the jungle closed in.
Suddenly a mine exploded against the lead tank but did not damage it seriously. When the next mine detonated, the jungle belched and the fight was on. Growing more bitter by the second, the battle was fought at point blank range for four hours.
SSG Charles Norris, blown out of his tank into a ditch, reached for an automatic rifle. It's Viet Cong owner was not ready to give it up, though. Norris was not a big man, and his scorched hands and arms weren't strong enough to hold the rifle, but he still needed it. He struggled with the VC for a weapon, and the Viet Cong, shocked by the sergeant's determination, ran into the jungle frantically clutching his rifle.
SFC Eugene F. Blair, a platoon sergeant, seventeen years an infantry, was never crazy about tanks: "it's the man on the ground who wins the battle," he said. But on his first tank ride he was coordinating fire of his platoon when one of his armored personnel carriers broke down. (Bill: See previous story). He moved his tank back to assist the isolated APC that was being overrun by the VC. He didn't know how to load a tank gun, but he learned fast: "I learned how to flip the hot brass out of the tank in a hurry." He didn't throw one far enough, though, and it wedged in the turret ring, locking the tank cannon in one direction. With the 90mm shotgun immobolized, the VC fire became more intense. Blair disregarded it, climbed out of the tank, removed the casing and dove back inside, each devastating blast of canister cut a swarth through the attackers, but the waves kept coming.
Even the constant airstrikes a few hundred yards away didn't seem to help as the ammunition dwindled, so the fighters were asked to come in closer. But 50 meters still wasn't close enough. So, the planes zeroed in at 10 meters. Flight after flight of fighters bore down and strafed and scattered CBUs, and, of course, some of them hit the road, the tank, the APC, but not the crews. And then it grew quiet for a few minutes. Not totally, because they still had to kill snipers, repair the APC and rejoin the troop which was still heavily engaged. In fact, the lull ceased when two men ran onto the road ahead of them and set up a tripod, followed by two more who set up a 75mm recoilless rifle on it. Blair and his crew zeroed the 90mm tank gun in on the VC position and blew it to pieces.
A lot of other VC vanished in pieces, too, and some wished they had. SGT Wayne T. Lura, scout section leader, appreciates suffering, even among the VC. Lura has inflicted some pain on the Viet Cong himself, but was shocked to see them pull blood-soaked bandages off their dead to put on their freshly wounded. "I don't know how they kept it up in the face of our machine guns and air strikes and that canister. You can't imagine how that eats them up".
By contrast, the young sergeant said the troop's medics "were tremendous. We've got this one goofy-looking hillbilly kid who was wounded in the back twice, but he kept going, running at full gallop from track to track, patching people up and just not worrying about himself." Asked if he thought the odds against him at the time were to great, Lura said he "just didn't think about it then, you just keep working. Sometimes it got kind of bad when they were in real close all around us, but LT David C. Kinkead, 2d Plt leader, and the troop commander CPT Ralph M. Sturgis, never once raised their voices, and you could see they were in the thick of it, too. Their track took three hits and they remained just as calm."
The CO's track indeed took three hits. The first, a 75mm hole-in the left front, wounded the driver, in the leg. Later as Sturgis, ducked to switch frequencies, a blast splashed shrapnel across the hatch where he'd been standing a second before. Kinkead and 1st PSG Richard L. Lanham each experianced this type of narrow miss a little later.
SGT Thomas N. Saporito pulled the driver out, and while others treated him, Saporito jockeyed the track around to prevent the VC mortars from zeroing in. Between moves he fired his granade launcher from the driver's seat.
He was never idle, fortunately, because when one mortar round did hit the track two feet from the driver's hatch, he was down reloading and was not hurt. However, his ears did a little. A former commercial pilot, Saporito suffered a mild heart attack last year and was worried about passing a flight physical in the future. "But if it didn't give out then, I'm not worried about a thing". Because of the dense jungle on both sides of the road, Sturgis had little room to maneuver, but he had his men keep moving back and forth to prevent recoilles rifles and mortars from zeroing in. "This was something we learned from previous battles that nobody's going to forget." Coordinating the dozens of flight sorties, the artillery and armed helicopter strikes, evacuation of wounded, and reinforcing isolated elements or those where combat was predominantly hand-to-hand kept the captain under pressure. He gave orders prsonally and by radio for more than eight hours without raising his voice.
"You'd swear he was talking about farming or football or something," said one NCO, "just as calm as you please, and you know CPT Sturgis was as scared as the rest of us." Besides the three direct hits on his track, there were gouges from shrapnel and bullets all over it.
Lura's faith in his unit was reinforced by the spontaneous actions he witnessed. PFC Joseph D. Rossi had interupted his spotwelding job in Chicago to join the Army as a scout driver a year ago. He became a track commander with no preparation when a direct hit killed tow NCO'S and three men in his track. He and PFC Edward l. Guilliams evacuated the wounded and continued to fight the VC by themselves. "This kind of thing happened in several places."
Everyone seems to do just the right thing, with or without orders, but it was reassuring to hear how cool the commanders were.
Lura went on to praise the morale effect of the continuous air support, the extensive resupply that evening, and the ground reinforcements who arrived later. "It really made us feel we weren't alone.
LT Ronald A. Copes, troop executive officer, is a genial, mild-mannered person....whic is fortunate because he is six feet, three inches tall and weighs 240. His pleasant disposition deserted him entirely when a VC threw a 75mm casing packed with TNT at him. He three it back at the VC and put four bullet holes in him before the casing exploded and finished the job. Copes was then seen firing automatic rifles frontier-style, passing the empthy ones to his observer to reload, and firing the next one. This occured as he was leading a reinforcing column to the troop.
The battle ended with the VC on the run and Alpha Trp continuing it's mission. The VC's 272d REGT losses were estimated at between 200 and 250 dead, countless wounded, and numberious weapons captured or destroyed.
"This was the first time that a VC regiment, making a determined and sustained effort to ambush a unit, was routed and defeated," said the III CTZ Commander LTG Tri, at III Corps HQ as he presented the Cross of Gallentry with Palm to CPT Sturgis and to Alpha Trp, 1st Sqdn, 4th Cav, 1st Inf Div.


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