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BOX FORMATION USED BY UNITS OF THE 1/4 Cavalry beginning 1968

by (then)CPT John Conley, Alpha 6


By John Conley who was Commander of A Troop

As I recall, in 1967 following Junction City II, the 2nd Platoon of Bravo Troop was attached to Dixie North at Quan Loi as security for the airfield when the Division went back south and the main road north was ceeded to the Cong's control. At that time I was a new 1st Lieutenant and had been the Platoon Leader for about 2 or 3 months. That was how long I was in country. SFC Coker, one of the best NCO's our Army ever had, was the Platoon Sergeant and my mentor. He had been the Platoon Leader for quite a while prior to my arrival. This is where the "Box" was born. I will tell the story of the "Box" Formation as best I can recall. Please step forward to fill in the gaps in my memory.

At Quan Loi we guarded the airstrip at the Frenchman's plantation home-site and spent a lot of time during our about 5 month stay patrolling the rubber plantations, bamboo, and jungle in that area. We frequently had the additional support of an armored platoon from Dreadnought Bravo, which as I recall, it had about 3 to 5 tanks available at any one time and two trucks with quad 50s mounted on the back. They were led by a very competent Platoon Sergeant.

During this time we were pretty much on our own and it was necessary to improvise a lot. Many golden opportunities arose to dream up and try new ideas that we would never have had the chance to dabble with anywhere else. For example, I recollect a "Quad 50 Ambush" which we cooked up. It was a little convoy of tanks and APCs, which included the two trucks with quad 50s covered by canvas and being towed behind armored personnel carriers in the middle of the column. We took this little convoy into the wooded area a few miles northwest of the airstrip, creating our own trail, and hoping to entice an ambush. Charlie had never seen such a strange looking outfit on his turf. We looked like a small, lost convoy way off the road, and as we imagined, he had no other choice but to ambush us to get the goodies on the back of those trucks. Sergeant Grossinger, a former German Army tank commander who always wanted the point and was fast as greased lightning when action began, and cool as a cucumber, led us into the ambush. That day Charlie learned something about grabbing a tiger by the tail. I will never forget the way those quad 50's cut down the jungle like a surgical knife. That was a special one-time adventure and I am certain that some little guy northwest of the Quan Loi airstrip is still walking around in dispair, crying "Ohhhhhhh Shit." That was just a sample of the what it was like to be pretty much on your own for a while and little adventures like this made life a lot more interesting.

Another idea was the "box." Prior to my Army days, I had spent 5 years in the Marine Corps, assigned much of the time to antitank units learning the many ways to destroy the very vehicles I was now commanding. I worried a lot about losing sight of our armored vehicles in the jungle during a fight while using standard formations and getting suckered into shooting each other up. It was easy to get disoriented, especially without the helicopters flying above, and not everyone had a good sense of direction. We had no helicopters overhead while patrolling at Quan Loi. I also was concerned that when pushing jungle, Charlie would jump out of a hole behind the tanks and shoot someone in the back. This was an old Chinese tactic. With Charlie having no air support or heavy artillery, I started to see many advantages to developing some new tactics where we could employ our armored force as a tight, close together fighting package. Experimentation with formations resulted in the "box." I will not take full credit for it as it was a product of those Quan Loi days when we spent a lot of time kicking around ways to move about and fight with the most safety possible for the independent condition we found ourselves in.

Trial and error showed us that we could move into this formation rapidly under fire from the edge of the jungle and we could use it to spearhead our greatest strength and firepower into Charlie's face. We could soften up the jungle with 90 mm canister at close range and the solid steel front of tanks close together could push down most of the Jungle we encountered and it also created a fine landing zone for resupply and med-evac behind us. Three tanks made a fairly narrow path, but when 5 or 6 tanks were used with 2 platoons side by side, the path was quite wide. The flanks were well covered as well by the more vulnerable, lighter APCs in column behind the tanks. Additionally, by putting APCs behind the tanks, we could drive over the usually exposed enemy foxholes and then back off of them one at a time to drop in a grenade lunch to the Charlie who would have shot our tank commanders in the back. With the Troop "Box" we could hold one platoon in reserve in a Platoon "Box" and move it up either flank of the attack formation if we received a flanking attack on the Troop "Box." We had a clearly defined front and flanks to the unit that could be seen from overhead and it was a simple matter to adjust close in artillery and air strikes, and even to back off only a few meters and have 500 pounders placed neatly in front of the tanks. It was amazing how easy it was to explain this formation to newcomers and how quickly we could button up the tracks when we counted to six as the bombs left the aircraft. They dropped those bombs so close that the 52 ton tanks would lift about a foot off the ground. It was exciting indeed. The "Box" became a mobile fortress with unimaginable focused firepower which was easily supported by even more deadly Artillery and Airforce toys.

Over time, we learned to use it well. During the First Tet Offensive after I took over the Troop from Captain Bryson, who was shot with an AK47 (5 hits) diagonally across his chest in the village north of Phu Loi, I had many an opportunity to use the "Box" with a real Cavalry Troop instead of the mixed up Platoon (plus) we had at Quan Loi. Incidentally, Captain Bryson visited me at Fort Knox about a year or so later and he was doing just fine. After Tet 1 was over I went to the States and returned about a month later for an extra 6 months. After about a month serving as the Adjutant and working directly for the Squadron XO, LTC Barney Forbes, who I cannot say enough good things about, I took command of "A" Troop south of Phuc Vhin, by Four Corners, where COSVN (sic) Headquarters (NVA Headquarters in South Vietnam) was coordinating the beginnings of the Second Tet Offensive. I took over command of "A" troop under the unfortunate circumstances where my predecessor had been killed by a direct hit from an RPG in his side. "A" and "B" Troops were there along with some elements of "C" Troop (I believe your platoon Joe) and the Squadron Headquarters. "B" Troop already knew the "box" from Tet 1 and before. "A" troop learned about it the night I arrived and it came in handy the next day, April 18, 1968.

The night of the 17th required a great deal of reorganization and training for "A" Troop which had just a few days before been replaced at the Saigon Water Plant by "C" Troop (minus). A few months at the Water Plant and out of the jungle after Tet 1, along with a lot of turnover, left "A" Troop a little short on jungle experience and many of the 50 caliber machine guns had not had their head space and timing set nor were they test fired for a long time. That night many of the track commanders reported that their 50s would not fire. We trained pretty hard that night, and Charlie, who turned out to be NVA Regulars, interrupted our sleep with a mortar barrage. After checking out the area he was firing from in a nearby village, we finally got some shuteye.

First light had us moving away into a jungle clearing where the 50's were test fired and properly adjusted. The track commanders now knew the theory of the "Box" and it was soon time to employ it. While we test fired, "B" Troop moved directly toward the area which turned out later to be COSVN Headquarters. Two "D" Troop Loaches reconing the area in front of "B" Troop came under fire and made a tactical mistake during the surprise. They turned toward each other and crashed rotor to rotor. I lost one of my best pilot friends there, W2 Anderson (Andy), who had flown me all over the place during my brief duty as Adjutant, and was always ready to get right down on the tree tops and look for Charlie.

"A" Troop was directed to move toward a small clearing to the left and came under fire from the left side of that clearing. We moved quickly into the "Box" and turned the formation into the enemy. We had two platoons up front and one in the rear ready to sweep either flank of the "Box." We sustained 4 wounded during the initial contact and were able to dust them off courtesy of Dragoon 6, when he donated his chopper for that purpose while we were awaiting the delivery of 500 pounders. I recall that he was walking up through the "box" looking for my track, calling my name and unaware that the bombs were being delivered. The count of 4 found him announcing himself at the rear of my track and with some quick gymnastics we got him inside a split second before a huge metal bomb fragment flew over the open top hatch. I think that was his first introduction to the "Box," and I believe he was sold on it from that moment foreward. General Westmoreland was also flying overhead and learned of the "Box" during this battle. I was fortunate to meet him after this engagement as a result of the battle we had just concluded and some harsh comments I made to him and Dragoon 6 while they were mistakenly talking on our Troop Command frequency while I was directing the ground action and trying to call in a med-evac. This was clearly bonding under fire. Danger 77 would visit us from the air any time he was in the area after that day and he used my first name to address me, something I never would have expected. I'm not sure if this was the day we received the Meritorious Unit Citation or just the very nice letter from Danger 77. I will have to check my records to see if I can determine that.

During this battle we were tear gassed 7 times in a 4 hour (plus) fight. Prior to this time I had never heard of an American unit getting gassed and after that day we started using a lot of tear gas too, whenever it proved advantageous. We learned that you cannot fight with a gas mask on in the jungle, as it instantly steams up. That's where our little slogan, "I would rather cry than die," came from. It was a hard fought, nasty and tearful victory and the "Box" proved effective.

Those who were there may recall that after it was all over someone heard whimpering in the bunkers we destroyed. I cautiously looked under the crushed down underbrush to see a small red puppy, who we retrieved and named Red Dog. What else could we name a communist, red colored mutt. She became our Troop Mascot and was there to greet us when we found occasion to stop at the Phu Loi Base Camp. That was the 18th of April 1968 as I recall it Joe, I will look a little deeper into my things to see what else I can find that you may find useful. Some of the days and battles are starting to run together now.

John E. Conley Major, U.S. Army Retired


C Troop - Battle of FB Rita

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This page was last updated on 4 Feb 2017