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The Ivy Division's 1st Battalion, 69th Armor recently routed a battalion-sized NVA ambush force along Highway 19 between Mang Yang Pass and An Khe.
Forty of the Communist soldiers fell to the blazing guns of the Battalion's mighty "iron horses" in the day long encounter. The enemy ambush was well-planned but collapsed when executed. The NVA tipped their hand prematurely, then broke and ran, overwhelmed by the tankers' swift, punishing reaction.
The 250-man ambush force was divided, with two companies dug in north of the vital supply route about 1000 meters apart with a mortar company in support.
"Apparently the enemy planned to hit the front and rear of a convoy, then chop up the middle," explained Lieutenant Colonel Theodore S. Riggs Jr., of Alexandria, Va., battalion commander, "meanwhile firing mortars on LZ Schueller to delay our reaction."
The plan was doomed to failure. At 8 a.m., a military police patrol discovered a 105mm howitzer round in the road. The MPs called in explosive ordnance personnel to disarm the round and as they approached, the round was detonated. Small arms and automatic weapons fire shattered the quiet morning air and two of the EOD team fell, one dead.
The 1st Battalion, 69th Armor was contacted immediately and the tankers roared into action. At LZ Schueller, east of the contact, Company A moved at A breakneck pace down the highway, accompanied by armored personnel carriers from the battalion's scout platoon, mortar platoon and ground surveillance section. One tank commander, Sergeant Richard Waller of Kent, Wash., had his vehicle partly dismantled looking for a fuel leak. The crew frantically reassembled the tank and took off after the main body. "I'm sure we set some kind of time record," said Sgt. Waller.
The group from LZ Schueller was first to arrive and moved north on line. "The NVA were dug in just off the road." said First Lieutenant Joe Somolik of Chicago, scout platoon leader. "When we charged them they broke and ran. Charlie never figured on all that armor being ready for him."
Twelve enemy soldiers were gunned down by the tracks within minutes, the rest fleeing north toward Hill 564. The tanks returned to LZ Schueller, picked up two platoons from Company A, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry and moved back to take the hill. The armor's Company B arrived from An Khe and deployed south of the road to search and guard against possible enemy action from that direction.
The force from LZ Schueller moved north. The big tanks' guns plastered the enemy-held hill with 90mm rounds, while the other tracked vehicles sent .50-caliber bullets ripping into the brush. After a few minutes of "softening up" the tracks roared up the slope.
"Apparently all those tons of charging steel were too much for Charlie to handle," said First Lieutenant Scott Daniels of Philadelphia, 3rd Platoon leader with Company A. "When we reached the top he was gone." Bunkers, telephone lines, hastily abandoned weapons and numerous blood trails, attested to Charlie's recent presence.
After taking the infantrymen back to LZ Schueller, the armored vehicles took up assigned strong point positions guarding the highway.
At noon, the second stage of the battle began, this time against a heretofore undisclosed second NVA position 1000 meters east of the first contact.
Vietnamese woodcutters working in the forest near LZ Schueller began moving quickly back to the road. "I looked up and saw them break out of the wood line all at once," said First Lieutenant James F. Walker Jr., of Fremont, Mich., Company A executive officer, immediately realizing something was in the air. He found Specialist 4 David A. Doverspike of Zelienople, Pa., a company track mechanic, and put him to work lobbing rounds from a captured mortar into a suspicious area in the woods.
"On the seventh round," said SP4 Doverspike. "we got one back, the first of many." More than 40 82mm rounds were to slam the location that afternoon with SP4 Doverspike and gunners from Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 17th Artillery continuing the deadly duel with the communist mortar men, despite casualties.
As mortar rounds punched LZ Schueller, a scout vehicle radioed 1LT Somolik that it was receiving enemy fire in Ambush Alley, a section of the road bordered on both sides by thick vegetation and brush-filled draws. The second part of the enemy ambush had exposed itself.
The armored force quickly reassembled at the contact area and moved north on line once again. Coordinated air strikes, artillery fire and gunships blasted the NVA as the tankers charged the enemy position with weapons blazing.
"Charlie was completely disorganized by the tracks, just like in the morning," said Platoon Sergeant Harold L. Lundsten from Seattle, of Company A. "Some were firing back at us but most were running for their lives." Sergeant Lundsten killed two panicked enemy with his sub- machine gun when they ran in front of his tank.
Colonel Riggs, at one point during the contact, seeing that two Medical Evacuation helicopters were unable to reach two wounded tankers, directed his command and control aircraft through thick fire to take them to safety.
By 4 p.m., the shooting was over; 40 NVA bodies and assorted enemy equipment and weapons, mostly brand new, littered the two battle areas. Colonel Riggs noted that throughout the day's fighting, "normal traffic was maintained on the road, seven convoys passed through with mishap.
Interrogation of four prisoners detained by the tankers during the fighting revealed that the enemy force was new in-country and had not been in action before. The prisoners told questioners that their leaders had promised them the American forces had no armor.
Captain John E. Biggio of Eagle Pass, Tex., who directed much of the action as Company A commander, summed it up:
"We caught them with their pants down," he smiled.
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