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A TROOP AT THE BATTLE OF TAN HEIP
by Bill Butler
By Bill Butler
The way I remember the location is that there was road North out of Di An. Another road intersected going East and West to Phu Loi. The fire fight took place Southwest of the intersection
The day before, we were sent to support an infantry unit, I think it was the 1/18 Infantry which had been ambushed in some rice paddies in an area which was Southeast of the intersection. The infantry had been mauled, and they had taken a lot of casualties. We ended up forming a lagger with the tanks and personnel carriers to secure an area to evacuate the casualties by helicopter medivac. Our field of vision was obscured by a tall rice paddy dike, so we could only hear the sounds of the fire fight. I watched the same two medics carry casualties out for hours. They made the trip so often, that it became obvious that they were exhausted. Finally they made a trip back, and it seemed to me that they weren't dragging as badly. I realized the body they were carrying on the stretcher was gone from the chest up.
The next day we were on a Search and Destroy when we received information that B Troop was in a fire fight and we were supposed to react to it. When my platoon entered the area of the fire fight on the first day we were on line in almost a half of a circle, and we stopped. We were in a field with a ditch at it's edge that had a narrow tree line in it. There was a burning tank from B Troop in the field beyond the tree line. There was an infantry squad on our left flank, and they were advancing towards the tree line. The infantry took fire from the ditch, and they hit the ground. We took fire from the ditch and from our rear from VC who were dug in. Some of the VC were in holes inside our perimeter.. The vehicles in my platoon backed together, tightened up, and returned fire. We also received supporting fire from an observation helicopter which had a mini-gun. It had fired on the VC inside or perimeter.
During the fire fight we were in the Block Formation, mentioned in the after action report a lot of the time. What that meant was the tanks were on line and the personnel carriers were lined up in rows behind the tanks. Both A Troop and B Troop vehicles were used. We maneuvered in that formation. The following vehicles would fire between the vehicles in front of them. That was the only time I had seen that many vehicles together at one time. The firepower was tremendous. At one time we were told to quit firing our .50's because bullets were dropping into Phu Loi. The VC were dug m camouflaged holes. The area also had a lot of ditches. I have often wondered how many people might have been smashed into caved in positions while we were maneuvering in that massed formation.
We didn't leave the area until after dark. We bivouacked that night in Di An in a company area of an infantry unit that was out in the field. We used their mess hall. We resupplied the vehicles. We had shot up practically everything we had down to and
including our M79 and M16's. We ended getting M16 tracer ammo, so that's what we loaded our M16 magazines with, and we had a bunch of them. That ended up being extremely fortunate for me.
That night we also stole a driver's escape hatch off of a tank from the division's engineer unit. During the fire fight that day, our driver had to shit, so he dropped his escape hatch to do it. Our tank commander went off on him that night when he found out. He asked the driver what would have happened if someone would have rolled a grenade under the hatch. The TC told the driver that he should use his steel pot if that ever happened again. Somebody from our platoon told us the engineer's had at least one tank. A personnel carrier took us to their area, and we took a hatch off a tank to replace ours.
The next morning we lined up at the North Gate at Di An. We were going back to the same area. It was obvious to us that we were going to get into another fire fight. A Catholic Priest gave last rights to anyone who wanted them.
When we returned to area, we assumed the massed formation again. Contact was made immediately. Someone fragged some VC who were dug in. At one point during the second day, we were told to button up, so the Air Force could bomb close to us.
We had hit some bamboo which we could not penetrate. We backed up about 10 meters and fired canister into the bamboo to soften it up so we could go through it. When we went through the bamboo there was a dead VC between two man size holes. He had probably been killed by the canister we had fired into the bamboo. My tank commander radioed the platoon leader who got the whole element to halt. I was told to search the body which was fine with me because we had heard the night before that the VC carried II) cards in their shirt pockets, and I wanted one. I grabbed an M16, and jumped off the right front fender of the tank and landed about three feet from the first hole. The two holes were in a straight line to my position with the dead VC lying at 90 degrees to the line and about halfway between the two holes. The holes were about five feet apart. I was squatted down. I held the M16 in my right hand by the pistol grip. I flredft couple of rounds into the first hole. I had no idea how deep it was, but it was extremely shallow, and debris blew back on me and stung my face. I inched towards the body. I still held my rifle by the pistol grip but parallel to the ground and pointed at the other hole. I was reaching towards the dead VC's shirt pocket with my left hand trying to find his ID card when another VC popped up out of the second hole holding his rifle straight up, parallel and close to his body because the hole was so narrow. I began to fire my rifle, stood up, and grabbed the hand guard of my rifle with my left, and I emptied the magazine shooting from the hip. The VC was knocked down falling backward. I turned, tripped, fell flat on my face, crawled around the left side of the tank, stood up, and ran around to the back of the tank. I got a full magazine for my rifle from a crewman who was on the back deck of the tank. While I was getting to the back of the tank, the tank commander fired one hundred rounds with the .50 caliber machine gun into the hole which was the entrance to a small bunker. Another VC was in the bunker, and he was
also killed when my tank commander fired his .50, the whole line of tanks began to fire their weapons, the noise was deafening, and it took about ten minutes for a cease fire to take effect. I went around the right side of the tank back to the hole and saw that it had been the entrance to a bunker that went back about six feet. The top of the bunker had been camouflaged, but it had caved in from the .50 caliber machine gun fire. The original dead VC looked like hamburger. His legs were skewed in a grotesque manner. I also saw that there had been a second VC in the bunker behind the one I had killed. I picked up the AK47 that had belonged to the VC I had killed. I jerked it up in the air in a gesture of triumph showing it to my crew members and anybody else on the other vehicles who could see me. I threw the rifle on the fender of my tank. I pulled out the AK47 that belonged to the VC that the tank commander had killed, and handed it to one the crew members on the CO's track which had pulled up next to the bunker. I also gave them two packs which were filled with rice and had one mortar round in them and two red clear plastic canteens. I remounted my tank, grabbed the rifle off the fender, climbed back onto the turret, and sat on the loader's hatch. There was a bullet hole in the hand guard of the rifle, and it was smeared with blood. I figured one of my bullets had gone through the VC's hand. There was also a bullet hole in the stock. I must have raked down his chest with one of the first bullets going through the hand guard, and one of the last bullets going through the stock of the rifle. I took the magazine out, and pulled the bolt back. A bullet was ejected. I was suddenly stunned and terrified. The rifle had been locked and loaded. I realized it had been ready to fire when the VC I had killed had come out of the hole. I realized that if I had not been ready to fire, or if I had waited just split seconds, I might have been killed. We had only been a few feet apart when we faced each other. I also realized that the first rounds that I had fired had gone over his head. If the rounds had not been tracers, I might have missed him.
The element was maneuvering in another area. The steering on our tank malfunctioned. We could turn right, but the tank would not turn left. I got on the back deck of the tank and opened up the grill door above the left side of the transmission so I could push the lever on the transmission that turned the tank to the left with a tanker's bar. The nut and bolt that connected the steering linkage to the lever had fallen off. I was standing above the grill door watching the tank commander to take his direction. He would signal me when he wanted to turn left and tell the driver over the intercom when he wanted to turn right. I had been looking at the tank commander, he signaled me to turn left, so I turned my head back to the left to look down at the lever on the transmission to push it with the bar when another tank pulled up behind us at 90 degrees, and fired his main gun. The blast deflector on the barrel was on line with me, and the other tank was only a few yards away from me. The concussion that came out of the side of the blast deflector deafened me. The concussion rocked me so violently that my helmet was knocked off my head. We maneuvered back to an area where some vehicles had set up to secure an area to dust off dead and wounded personnel. Most of the vehicles were from Headquarters platoon, so one of the mechanics was able to repair the steering linkage while we were there. I got off the tank to help put the stretchers on the helicopters when they started to come in to evacuate the casualties. One the people I may have helped put on a dust off was Sergeant David George who had his right leg
blown off by an RPG.. Sergeant George had been my platoon sergeant from about the middle of February to end of April when he was assigned to another platoon. I was on his tank. We had become good friends. He was a great soldier, and he had trained me constantly.
The element was again in the block formation with all tanks forward and the armored personnel carriers following in rows behind the tanks. We had maneuvered into an area that had sparse vegetation with a wood line about 50 meters distant facing the element. We started taking small arms fire. The Zippo track was pulled up on line with the tanks and soaked the area directly in front of the line of tanks with napalm. The napalm was .sprayed as far as possible into the wood line. After the fire from the napalm burnt down, the element was supposed to advance through the area. Our tank had a fuel leak, so the tank commander radioed the platoon leader. Another tank maneuvered into our position, and my tank was not supposed to advance with the rest of the unit. When the fire died down, the element moved forward even though the area was still smoldering and small fires were still burning. The tank that took our place maneuvered directly in front of us, it had moved forward about 10 meters on line with the rest of the line of tanks when the tank commander jerked back violently, his back seemed to have been blown out, and his whole back had turned to blood. I thought he had been hit with a rocket propelled grenade. That tank stopped advancing. The rest of the line of tanks started firing their .50 caliber machine guns and their main guns as they advanced across the open area towards the tree line. After the personnel carriers had maneuvered around us and the tank that had taken our place, the three other crew members on the dead tank commanders tank climbed on the turret and pulled him out of the hatch and laid him on his back on the back deck of the tank After the tank commander had been put on the back deck, the tank turned around, and went closely by us to the secured area where the casualties were being medivaced. There was blood all over the back of the turret. I was confused because the dead tank commander only had a small wound in his chest. I thought he had been hit by a rocket, but I learned later that he had probably been hit with a communist .51 caliber machine gun. As the tank went by, my tank commander and I looked at each in amazement, realizing how lucky we were. We commented that it could have been us. We usually rode on top of the vehicles, or if we where in a fire fight, we would be standing in the hatches exposed from about the waist up like the dead tank commander had been.
One of the personnel carriers in my platoon had the Playboy cartoon character, "Annie Fannie" painted on the side. The track commander had only been out in the field for a few days. He was shot in the head and killed. We saw his crew pull him out of the cupola.
My tank was on the left flank of the formation. Some infantry personnel were to the left of my tank and about 20 meters to the rear. We had taken some small arms fire from the front and left flank. We had suppressed the fire from the VC with machine gun fire from my tank and the personnel carrier to our rear. There was a VC pack on the ground about 15 meters to the left of the tank. One of the infantrymen must have thought the
pack was a VC and threw a hand grenade at it. I yelled grenade, and I ducked inside the turret. As I ducked down, I realized that the crew member who was on the back deck of the tank didn't hear me because he didn't react. The gunfire was constant at that time, and the noise was deafening. I raised back up to warn him, the grenade exploded, and a small piece of shrapnel hit my cheek and embedded in my left jaw. I was knocked off balance, my feet slipped off the loader's seat, I fell to the turret floor, and landed painfully on my knees. I climbed back up. I wanted to see if the crew member on the back deck was all right. He had been sitting on some C Ration cases that were strapped to the end of the back deck loading M16 magazines. He was completely oblivious to what had happened. Later we found that some of the cans in the C Rations had small holes in them from the shrapnel from the hand grenade. He had been pretty lucky.
That night we went back to Di An. We had a hot meal in the mess hall. The colonel who was the squadron commander asked me how I was doing. I had a thick gauze bandage on my jaw that the medic had wrapped tape around the top of my head and under my jaw to keep the bandage on. I had no idea the colonel even knew who I was, but he knew that I had been on Sergeant George's tank, he told me that Sergeant George had been flown to the hospital at Long Binh, but he did not know what his condition was. I was devastated. It was hard for me to believe that Sergeant George had been wounded.
The next morning, I was sent on sick call. I walked to the dispensary which was on the far side of the base camp with ajaw that had become swollen and a lot more painful. There were a lot of other people who had minor wounds at the dispensary, so we had a long wait to see a doctor. The doctor that saw me tried to probe for the shrapnel through the hole in my cheek. He tried to pull it out with tweezers. All he did was hurt me. He sent me on my way with a prescription of Darvon with codeine, and told me to come back the next day, so they could send me to the hospital in Di An. I walked back to the company area where we had bivouacked. My jaw hurt so bad that I ate most the Darvon I had on the way back, and by the time I reached the place, I was completely out of it from the codeine. The area where the vehicles had been the last two nights was full of trash. Most of it was the result of resupplying the vehicles with ammunition. The area was littered with ammunition cases and cans. I saw an almost new flack jacket on the ground. I thought someone had probably dropped it. I reached down to pick it up, and in my stupor all I did was flip it open. It was full of blood. The blood was coagulated and almost an inch thick. It was like jelly. I flipped the front back to cover the blood. Someone had written an A and the vehicle number of a personnel carrier on it with magic marker. The flack jacket had belonged to the track commander from my platoon who had been killed. I felt sick from what I had just seen, the codeine, the pain, and the sun which was blinding me. I found a bunk in one of the barracks, laid down and fell asleep or passed out from the codeine. I slept until someone from my platoon found me, and woke me at dusk. I was groggy, but I felt a sense of relief when I was told my unit had not gotten into a fire fight that day, and everyone had returned safely. I had assumed we would probably return to the area, and establish contact with the VC again, but they had
withdrawn from the area. The next day I went back to the dispensary, and I was sent to Long Bien on a truck. I went to an oral surgeon, and he cut the shrapnel out. It seemed bizarre to be sitting in dentist's chair, in a clean air conditioned office. I could have been back home. Except I was filthy. The left shoulder of my fatigue shirt was stiff with dried blood. I smelled awful.
A few days after the fire fight, part of my troop returned to the area. The area was flat, the rains had started, the low areas were soft, so the tanks were left on higher ground while the personnel carriers searched the area. I started walking around the area. Different reports of the incident said the body count was anywhere from 200 to 600 dead VC. I have no idea what is correct, but I did see a lot of dead VC. I was in an area that had been burned by napalm that just reached into some bamboo. A VC was sitting inside the bamboo and the napalm had burned him up to his waist. He was leaning back against some bamboo like he was in a recliner. His hands where on the sides of his head. I got the impression that he had been pulling his hair in agony when he died. I walked up on another VC who was lying on his back. His fatigue shirt had popped open because his body had swollen so much. There were maggots in his mouth. I was stunned. It was a scene out of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" which I had read in high school. One of the characters in the book had walked up on the body of a dead Japanese soldier lying on his back with his fatigue shirt split open because his body was swollen, and he also had maggots coming out of his mouth. The only difference was the VC wore shorts and rubber sandals. Like the GI in the book, I was both fascinated and repulsed. I kept thinking that I had read about this. It seemed so bizarre, so unreal. The loader on my tank started yelling at me to come back. When I got back to the tank, he pointed out someone in the distance he had been watching and thought might be a VC. He turned out to be a VC who had been wounded in the shoulder, and eventually he walked towards the tank. He was in bad shape because the wound had not been treated.
We went back to the area one more time. We took a bulldozer loaded on a low boy. The tank retriever from Headquarters Platoon was with us. The bulldozer dug a deep trench next to the burnt tank from B Troop. The bulldozer and the tank retriever got on the opposite side of the tank with their blades down, and they flipped the tank over and it fell into the trench upside down. The bulldozer covered the tank with dirt.
That's pretty much the way I remember what happened.
The After Action Report you posted from the 1/18 Infantry helped me understand more what happened on 514. I thought we supported the 1/18 Infantry that day, but I wasn't really sure. I remember seeing an awful lot of GI's dusted off that day. The After Action Report said there were 6 American KIA's and 23 WIA's. I thought the grunts walked into an ambush and got clobbered, but the After Action Report said there were 109 VC KIA's and 5 POW's, so it looks like they dished it out better than they got hurt. The After Action Report stated that A Troop was there on 5/4/6 8. All I remember was my platoon securing a dust off. If the rest of the troop was there, they were in a different area.
The two incidents, the Battle of the Factory and Tan Heip were two separate engagements. If you look at the After Action Report for Tan Heip, it took place Northeast of Di An. A Troop was there only on 5/4/68. The After Action Report for the Battle of the Factory states it took place Northwest of Di An. The report states that only one platoon from the 1/18 Infantry was present. I always thought that at least a part of C Troop was there, but the After Action Report does not list them being there. In your email to me about Conley, he said they were also there.
This Page Modified 10 Feb 2017
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This page was last updated on 4 Feb 2017