Note: This is part two of a series. You can read part one here.
Sometime after midnight, Aug. 23, south of FOB 4 in Da Nang, sitting atop the highest of the five peaks that make up Marble Mountain, the nine men of ST Rattler were enjoying a quiet night. Assistant Team Leader Larry “Gambler” Trimble was monitoring the FM PRC-25 radio when a loud explosion sounded at the Marine outpost, located on a smaller hill in the mountain chain east of his location. That explosion occurred at the location where a few Marines were manning a 106mm recoilless rifle. Moments later, a second Marine position on the mountain—a listening post—was attacked.
Trimble dialed in the Marine FM frequencies for those positions. There was no response. “I tried to make contact with the Marines, but I heard nothing,” Trimble told SOFREP.
As the men of RT Rattler awoke, Trimble called FOB 4 to inform them of the explosions at the Marine locations that were on the other mountain peaks and that there was no response to the Marine Corps troops assigned to those areas. “About that time, all hell broke loose at the [FOB 4] compound,” he said.
Trimble moved to the north side of Marble Mountain, staring in complete disbelief at the explosive drama unfolding below him in the top-secret SOG base. Within a matter of minutes, Trimble began hearing explosions from satchel charges that the NVA/VC sappers were throwing into recon-team buildings made from plywood. As he observed those explosions, the indigenous mess hall exploded, and in short order the commo bunker was burning.
In the transient barracks, an exhausted Green Beret Gene Pugh was awakened by “some muffled explosions.” As he stuck his head out of the door to check the center hallway, a homemade VC grenade was tossed “outside the door to the barracks.” Pugh yelled “Grenade!” as he tried to prevent troops from running out of that door. The grenade had a long fuse. Pugh and a captain moved cautiously toward it. Suddenly it exploded, peppering them with minor shrapnel wounds. Both were thankful the grenade hadn’t been an American M-26 fragmentation grenade. As everyone in that barracks scrambled into their clothes and web gear, a massive explosion from a satchel charge knocked everyone to the floor and inflicted wood-splinter wounds on Pugh and the captain.
Private First Class William T. Barclay, the night-duty radio operator, was joined by Private First Class Robert D. Leathers in the newly-opened Tactical Operations Center (TOC) on the western side of the compound. They could tell that the NVA were steadily walking mortar rounds toward them and the eight other Americans, including Sgt. Michael Byard, inside the semi-underground, heavily-fortified bunker. With each explosion, the TOC shook a little bit more violently. Barclay figured they didn’t have a hell of a lot of time, so, as a few others prepared thermite charges that would be used to destroy all the classified materials, Barclay grabbed the .30-caliber machine gun and headed toward the reinforced steel door. He was planning to make his way to his assigned defensive position on the camp’s western perimeter.
Just as Barclay yanked open the heavy door, an enemy soldier rushed into view. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth, a bandana, and he carried two woven baskets full of hand grenades. The NVA soldier dropped the baskets, swung his AK-47 toward Barclay, and opened fire. Fortunately, his momentum meant his aim was off and Barclay was able to slam the door before he could fully adjust. As Barclay secured the door, he could hear rounds ricocheting off of it. In his surprise, he turned to his compatriots in the TOC and stated the obvious, “We’re under attack!”
Privates First Class John E. Peters and Doug Godshall found themselves crawling on the floor in a recon-team hootch on the other side of camp in the Recon Company area. Both men had appeared before the board and had celebrated that night with a few drinks. Both assumed FOB 4 was a safe, secure compound. Godshall said, “John and I put away many screwdrivers that night, so when the fireworks started, we were a little slow to react.” They could hear massive explosions all around the hootch and bursts of small-arms fire ripping through the darkness. Peters’ mind worked frantically; where exactly was he and where the hell was his weapon? Private First Class William H. Bric III, grabbed his web gear and CAR-15, shouted some words that did not make sense to either Peters or Godshall, and charged out the door to his assigned defensive position.
In a nearby recon hootch, Green Beret medic Specialist Fourth Class Ron Jungling and his roommates were awakened by the same sudden eruption of sounds. FOB 4 was being hit, and hit hard. A series of concussions rocked the hootch and it was raked by gunfire. The bullets narrowly missed Jungling, but tore into Sergeant First Class Rolf E. Rickmers, killing him instantly. Jungling signaled to his other roommate, Sergeant First Class Charles R. Norris that they needed to get the hell out of the plywood hootch post haste, as it offered no protection. Outside, Jungling linked up with Bill Surface while Norris headed toward the eastern perimeter to rally security forces on the side of the camp facing the South China Sea.
Jungling found himself almost dispassionately contemplating the odd way the rapidly approaching NVA soldier was dressed. He was wearing essentially nothing but a loincloth, and had pieces of cloth tied around his arms and legs. He also had what looked to be a cravat around his head, and on it was some kind of writing. When he was less than 20 feet away, the sapper began firing his AK-47.
This brought Jungling out of his reverie. He returned fire, dropping the enemy at his feet. Tragically, one of the rounds that missed Jungling found Sergeant Major Richard E. Pegram Jr., who had crouched for protection behind a sandbag bunker. He had been hit in the left eye, the only part of him showing. Jungling tried his best to save him, but there was nothing he could do.
In the few seconds it took Jungling and Surface to orient themselves, they saw one of the Nung recon team members cut down as he attempted to reach his assigned position. Jungling and Surface retreated back toward the second row of recon hootches in the hopes of finding better cover and more survivors.
When the first aerial flares ignited over the FOB 4 compound, Pat Watkins and Sergeant Joe “Pigpen” Conlon hit the floor of the transient barracks amid the rattle of gunfire. An inexperienced first lieutenant stood looking out a window. The lieutenant’s silhouette made a perfect target. A huge explosion erupted just outside the barracks, knocking the lieutenant flat on his ass. He sat there in shock, clutching his right arm where a piece of shrapnel had gouged a nasty wound.
As Conlon moved to dress the lieutenant’s wound, another massive explosion rocked the building so hard, the light fixtures fell from the ceiling. Figuring that the transient barracks were next in line to receive a satchel charge through a window or doorway, Watkins shouted that they should move out into the larger area of the hallway, where they might have a chance to fend off an attack.
Conlon low-crawled to the left to cover the east end of the hallway. Watkins snaked his way right, cursing himself as he went. He had let Staff Sergeant Robert “Spider” Parks talk him out of his Swedish K 9mm submachine gun. Parks, who had made the Kingbee flight down from Phu Bai to Da Nang with Watkins, Peters, and a few other FOB 1 troops, had opted not to spend the night celebrating with the others at the FOB 4 compound, but at the SOG safe house, House 22.
Parks’ argument that his pursuit of booze and women in downtown Da Nang would expose him to the greater danger, thus making him more deserving of the Swedish K than Watkins, had seemed reasonable at the time. After all, FOB 4 was the designated headquarters for Command and Control North. It was filled with officers. It had good security. It was safe. Now trapped inside a nearly demolished building with nothing but a .45-caliber pistol, surrounded by a large number of very determined sappers, and with mortar rounds beginning to rain down on him, Watkins was pretty sure he had been duped.
As the drama unfolded in FOB 4, the men of ST Rattler watched in disbelief and frustration as the well-orchestrated attack developed. Wave after unrelenting wave of NVA sappers swept in from the east, the side of the compound that faced the South China Sea. As they flooded the compound, buildings exploded in their wake and dead bodies were left lying like dark stains on the clean white sand. It was clear the enemy had achieved total surprise. ST Rattler was powerless to stop it and Trimble couldn’t see how anyone could survive.
Sappers were unquestionably the elite troops of the NVA. Sappers received six months of concentrated and highly specialized instruction in assault tactics that involved the use of stealth and demolitions. Their focus was on barrier and defense penetration. They were fanatically dedicated troops, and their missions were often self-destructive. They were more than willing to blow themselves up if that’s what it took to achieve their objectives. And now a large number of them were inside the wire of the FOB 4 compound.
Peters, still on all fours, suddenly recalled where his weapon was. It wasn’t particularly comforting. Like a number of others, Peters had traveled to Da Nang for a promotion board and also like a number of others, believed FOB 4 was a secure compound and had left his CAR-15 and web gear at Phu Bai—taking off from FOB 1 with nothing but a .45-caliber pistol for protection. This now appeared to be an exceedingly dumb move. Bric, a friend of Peters from Special Forces Training Group, had told Peters to bunk with him in the Recon Company, instead of the transient barracks. The .45 in question was locked securely in Bric’s footlocker, and Peters couldn’t quite remember where it was. Recalling all of this took time, especially in Peters’ state. Figuring out exactly where the footlocker was took more time, and breaking the lock took a goddamn eternity, especially with the hootch being rocked every few seconds by thundering explosions.
It was a perfect microcosm of the larger scene. Everyone had been caught unprepared and, as a result, everyone was momentarily confused. In Peters’ and Godshall’s case, this confusion, and the delayed reactions it caused, saved their lives. Pistol finally in hand, Peters low-crawled to the door and cautiously peered out. Under the ghostly light provided by the aerial flares, depth perception was difficult, as everything appeared one-dimensional and washed out. Black shadows danced and swayed as the descending flares rocked under their mini-parachutes.
It didn’t take a genius to recognize that he and everyone else were in desperate straits. Multiple bodies lay along the strip of sand that ran between the rows of hootches. Toward the large, open area of sand that separated the recon teams from the Hatchet Forces (platoon-sized commandoes), he could see enemy troops kneeling and shooting at anything that moved. They looked terribly casual as they went about their business. It was as if they owned FOB 4.
Peters yelled to a group of men firing from a sandbagged position across from where he was to let them know where he was and that he was going to try and reach them. They would cover him while he made his sprint. Just a few meters outside was a body with a CAR-15 and some ammo pouches on the ground next to it. As Peters stopped to gather these, he was shocked to see it was Bill Bric lying motionless in the sand. He had been gunned down by the NVA as soon as he rushed outside. Had Peters been able to respond as quickly and surely as Bric had, he would be lying next to him. Peters hesitated, but then picked up Bric’s weapon and ammo and quietly thanked him. With bullets cracking past him, and sand kicking up all around, Peters completed his mad dash to the enclosure. Godshall exited the bullet-ridded hootch a short while later and safely made it to another sandbag position. Jungling also confirmed that Bric was KIA.
Stay tuned for part three of this series.
(Featured image courtesy of history.army.mil)