Overrun in Cambodia

On 11 May 1970 troops from Delta 1-7 First Cav combat assaulted into an abandoned NVA base camp in Cambodia. In a very short time, the vast area, shown above as the choppers touch down, would be transformed into the ill fated LZ Ranch.

Ranch was the first of a trio of  US bases in Cambodia manned by 1/7 Cav and 1/21st Artillery. Col.Everette ‘Moose’ Yon, the battalion commander, was likely responsible for it’s poor placement, the eastern berm too close to the wood line. “I want to give the gooks a chance,” he is alleged to have said.

On 16 May 70 Delta With mule and generator in foreground, view of east perimeter where sappers hit fourth platoon, then over ran the base. LZ Ranch, Snoul, Cambodia 1970 Photo: Mike PaestellaCompany, in from patrols, had perimeter guard. Early that morning, sappers crawled past the trips and claymores on the eastern berm, defended by Delta’s fourth platoon, killed machine gunner Mike Dawson, then headed for the TOC, where they tossed satchel charges and grenades into bunkers and shot GIs at close range.

Fourth platoon rallied and killed the sappers inside the perimeter. Medic’s third platoon, guarding the sector facing north, was not near the attack, and took only minor casualties. However, third platoon RTO Mike Wilson and Captain Leland Hylop went over the berm, Mike with a shotgun, the Captain with an AR 15, and killed several NVA. After the surviving artillery crews yelled ‘fire in the hole!” and shot a red flare into the sky, HE and fleshette rounds were fired directly into the wood line. The shells crashed through trees and scrub before exploding with a loud fiery BANG. Snoopy dropped basket ball lumes, close air support (ARA) worked out.

A dawn patrol dragged in more enemy dead. Like the sappers killed on the base, they resembled wiry porcelain dolls. Mike Wilson and Medic tossed three corpses into bomb craters and covered them with lime.

Medic received this account from Delta 1/7 Cav pointman Ralph Crowe

Two days after our air assault into Cambodia, we only had the berm up and had just set out the concertina wire. There were no bunkers or fighting positions yet, so we were vulnerable to attack. On the second day we set out trip flares so that the slightest movement would set them off. With the trips butterflied, there was no way a sapper could get past the wire.

The evening of the third day, a CH-47 flew in. Later, when the chopper took off, the downdraft blew out an entire sector of our trips. It was getting dark; we were unable to replace them. We were dangerously open to attack.

I was on guard that night from 2 to 3 am. A guy from our platoon, Tex, in the position next to ours, had gone over the berm to relieve himself. I remember looking at my watch at 2:30am thinking “only thirty minutes to go”. Tex heard something so he popped a hand lume. As soon as it ignited, the tree line lit up from the rockets and mortars being fired at us. I’d never seen anything like it, a solid wall of fire.

I heard AK-47 fire coming from inside the berm, and woke up the guys in my squad. We formed a small perimeter around each position, facing inward and outward. Eight sappers had breached the berm, blew up stuff, killing and wounding GIs.

Six of the sappers were killed close to where they came in. Two tried to get through our position. The guy with the satchel charge was killed immediately. We saw a guy running along the berm who we thought was our platoon sergeant, but it was the other NVA sapper.  There were three of us sitting there: me, Stanley, and Bill Shupe; Stanley and me sitting together. Stanley was breaking down M79 shells. He said to the sapper, “Whats happenin’ man?” The sapper fired point blank on full automatic, and missed. Shupe said, “He shot at us Ralph,” and I said, “No shit!”

The sapper jumped over the berm, running for the tree line, but we went to work on him. When I say work, I mean a couple of 16’s, an M-60, the M79 grenade launcher. Somehow the sapper made it back to the wire, setting off our trips, some of the only ones left. When he hit the concertina, he was taking so many rounds, shaking so hard, there was not much left of his body. To this day, I wonder how he missed us, firing so close up. We thought we were hit. It reminds me of the divine intervention scene from the movie Pulp Fiction.

Eight two man sapper teams had breached the berm. It was estimated there were thirty six teams between the berm and the tree line. Two of the eight sappers were killed in front of our position, the one with the satchel charge taking a shotgun blast to the head. We got the other guy after he jumped the berm. Artillery lowered their guns to zero degrees, and fired flechette rounds directly into the tree line.

The incoming and out going fire was tremendous. After I ran out of ammo, I grabbed the 90mm recoiless rifle and fired flechette rounds into the tree line the rest of the night. LZ Ranch defeneders had 5 KIA and 23 wounded.  The next morning, we saw it could have been worse. An unexploded rocket lay right outside our position.

If Vietnam was bad, Cambodia was hell. I can’t begin to explain how I felt. The next morning I had to suck it up. “Move out. Crowe, you’re on point.” It seems as though I’m still walking point, probably to my grave.

A footnote: I learned only recently that radar had detected a huge enemy force headed our way. They should have told us. It could have prevented LZ Ranch from being overrun.

Medic received this account of the attack from Delta fourth platoon squad leader Carl Lee:Carl Lee receiving Bronze Star. Phuc Vinh,Vietnam 1970

“Mike Dawson and I were pretty close and we shared the same hooch at LZ Ranch during our stay there. Hooch being two ponchos snapped together to form a tent to house our air mattresses for sleeping. The night, or should I say the early morning of May 16,1970,Mike and I were awakened at around 2 AM by gunfire and explosions everywhere. We both sat up and started to put our boots on. Mike just slipped his on and didn’t bother to lace them up. He said he had to get to the bunker to help Heaton,as he was the assistant gunner. I remember telling him to make sure his boots were on tight so he wouldn’t trip. That was the last time I would ever get to talk to Mike.

Mike no sooner made it to the bunker,when one or more grenades exploded on top of the bunker where Mike and Heaton were located. Mike was mortally wounded while Heaton was peppered with shrapnel. I too,was hit by a piece of shrapnel in my left knee. In all of this confusion I saw a North Vietnamese coming over the berm headed straight for my location. I had to lay motionless,since I had left my M-16 on the bunker some thirty feet away.

The mortar pits were now firing off more illumination rounds so visibility was almost like daylight. The gook,now standing only four feet away from me,was so close,I could see long whiskers hanging from his chin. He was heavily armed with several grenades and a AK47 hanging from around his neck. I just knew I would be killed,but I guess he thought I was already dead,because he decided  to go over to one of the 105 artillery pits behind us and started hurling grenades at it.

This is when I got Heaton’s attention to let him know we had a gook inside our perimeter. He saw the gook and killed him with his M60 machine gun. That’s when I ran to the bunker and got Heaton some more rounds for his machine gun and found Mike beside the bunker. I held Mike in my arms and tried to talk to him and I told him he would be all right. He didn’t say anything to me,but I could see from all of his wounds, one arm almost severed and his breathing very forced,that all I could do was just comfort him now. He died in my arms a short time after that.

Heaton and I kept up a volley of fire power the rest of the morning until day break. That’s when our captain and some others got to us for help. Everything was all over but it was nice to see some friendly faces. The Air force began bombing the woods out in front of us which gave us some time to check on things.

We carried Mikes body off and readied it for transportation back to the rear area. They did a body check and I think they found a total of  7 GIs and 18 gooks killed. I checked on the dead gook that had stood near me,and I was allowed to have anything from him I wanted to keep. I got his NVA belt and star buckle,NVA knife,and hammock. I still have all of these items today.

That afternoon I was sent to Long Binh hospital to have my knee wound X-rayed and checked for internal shrapnel. It took hospital personnel three days to finally get to me due to so many other cases that were worse than mine. I still have a one inch scar on my left knee as a reminder and too,my Dads birthday is May 16th.

I did contact Mike’s family a couple of years ago and sent them some pictures of him from over in Viet Nam. I told them that he had died in Cambodia which surprised them,because the Army had told them that he had died in Viet Nam. Good ole Uncle Sam!

Do you remember the bunker complex and zapper training facility inside the wood line at LZ Ranch? They had taken vines and formed them to resemble rolls of  bobbed wire. You could see where they had been practicing their crawling techniques in anticipation of the real thing. Of course we brought them the real thing and put it in their back yard. I remember too,we had only placed one strand of bobbed wire around our perimeter and everyone didn’t like that,especially since we had found that zapper school in the wood line. Also,there was high grass between the wood line and our berm to make matters even worse. You add the dense fog on that morning and we’re talking gooks in the wire!”

Fourth platoon squad leader Odell Newton sent Medic this account of the attack:

“Delta CompSgt.Odell Newton receiving Bronze Star with V device. Phuc Vinh,Vietnam 1970any’s fourth platoon had three bunkers close to the wood line. I had shaped my bunker like a castle tower. I was in the bunker next to Dawson. A guy name Pack was also in Dawson’s bunker. We had the 90mm with Andy Grines as my gunner. Our platoon consisted of Lt. Occhialini,Sgt Mac and myself. We also had two RTOs, “Sweetcakes” (Spec 4 Johnson from Iowa) and “Sourpuss” (a Spec 4 from MO,I think). We also had a Latin guy named Marcelo Guerra,a Shake ‘N Bake like myself.

We had three automatic ambushes go off in the late afternoon. When we went out to investigate, we found many blood trails and body parts. While investigating the last one,right after dark,we could hear the wounded gooks moaning and bodies being dragged away. After we came back to the LZ,a gook from the wood line fired a B40 at our tower that missed by about 20 meters,but landed inside the base.

At about midnight,I had guard duty. I had been awakened not by the previous guard,but by gun fire. I looked at the bunker next to mine and saw two or three gooks,dressed only in loincloths coming from the direction of Dawson’s bunker. I awoke Andy Grimes and the rest of the men in the bunker. I looked to the front and saw gooks in the wire. I tried to blow our claymores but the lines had been cut. Grimes fired one buckshot round from the 90mm. Sgt Mac took out the gooks between Dawson’s bunker and ours. I took out one that was running behind our bunker toward the TOC. I remember the 155 being fired with the muzzles almost level with the ground.

I recall heating up a C ration right next to a dead gook the next morning and watching the bodies being shoved into a hole and covered with lime. I recall a Colonel coming out and pinning Bronze Stars on our platoon,I think that my medic got two Silver Stars. I recall many lifers who were not in harm’s way getting many awards.

I can still recall the sounds of soldiers dying from both sides. I have relived Ranch many times over the past 38 years.”

Bravo/HHC 1/7 grunt Mike Hudzinski sent this account:

“I was in a bunker in the middle of the LZ Ranch the night that the NVA hit us. They thought it was the Eating lunch, Arty crew stands behind blast wall on LZ Ranch. Snoul, Cambodia 1970 Photo: Mike PaestellaTOC as one of the dead gooks had a map on him that had us marked as the main target. Evidently we had been scouted from the tree line during the day. There were six of us in the hole that night. It was hot as hell. We did odd-man-out to see who got what little air was stirring at the bunker entrance. I was in the back due to losing the toss first with Spec 4 Jim Cummings,the CO’s orderly. Next to me was  Donnie Toland,the battalion barber,then Jim. In the doorway was Spec 4 Emilio Supneta from Delta Company,a short timer waiting to go home. On the front right side,Sgt. Friday from S2/3, and my buddy Spec 4 Jim Ford.

When the shit hit the fan,I woke up and looked out towards the bunker entrance. All I could see and hear were bright yellow flashes,a loud blast/pop,then maybe 8-10 rounds of AK at point blank range. We we’re on the deck and digging in the dark for our M16s. My buddy Jim was killed instantly by a Chicom grenade which landed on his cot and blew him almost in half. Emilio was shot in the head twice point blank and died instantly. Sgt Friday had a sucking chest wound and was medivaced back to the states later on.

Donnie,Jim,and I all three survived physically. Mentally I died right then. We had blood and guts splattered on us and all along the interior walls of the bunker. Blood was an inch deep in the mud, and I can to this day smell every drop the boys left behind. I was so traumatized that I don’t remember much after that. It was the worst day of my life and still is. I can still see those seven guys laying lined up in body bags out in the hot sun waiting for the choppers to take them home. And to make it even worse,they gave a Purple Heart to Major Cady. I was told that he hit his freakin head on a timber trying to get into the real TOC to save his butt. He had to get stitches. I was hacked to the max when I saw that.

The next day,I was still numb from all that had happened and had a hard time dealing with my buddies deaths. Me and Donnie slept in that same damn bunker the next night. We tried to bury the blood and guts in a hole we dug back in the corner,but no matter how much we covered it up, it smelled like death. I didn’t go back in there anymore and slept on the ground next to a couple of sand barrels from then on until we left Ranch and went to LZ Corral.

I have stayed quiet for all these years,and this is the first time in like forever that I have even said anything. I was always one step ahead of the grim reaper the whole time I was in Nam. There were several times I should have died. My coin flip with Jim Cummings is always with me. If I had lost the toss you’d be sending him emails instead of me. Know what I mean?

Medic received this recollection by Bravo 1/7 grunt Arlen Ervasti:

“I was on LZ Ranch during the incident. That night sappers made it in to the perimeter. They came in by the side closeUnknown on LZ Ranch. Snoul, Cambodia 1970 Photo: Arlen Ervastist to the wood line.They shot and killed the guy on guard and started pouring over the berm. We got quite a few coming in but the dumb ass platoon sergeant made us quit shooting when they ran past us as we might hit someone on the other side of the perimeter. I told the dumb ass that I don’t miss,but to no avail. Three sappers made it into the center of the base.

I was sleeping above ground with my poncho attached to another guys to make a tent when the shit hit the fan. There is a picture of our tent in the photos. I am sure they had satchel charges on them as they had shoulder bags too. They went directly to the TOC and one trooper came out and hit a gook with an entrenching tool and killed him. I sure would like to know who it was…any idea? With the flares going off it was kind of surreal,like movement under strobe lights.

After the battle,the platoon sergeant said he was short-handed so I had to wait for reinforcements before I could leave Ranch. When I finally went back to the bush we took incoming and a guy was wounded but we landed anyway. Later someone was killed by a falling tree probably blown over by C-4. I turned 20 on May 31st. I say this with certainty,I never felt like an FNG.

Medic received this recollection of the attack from 4th platoon Delta 1/7 grunt Greg Lewis:

After landing in the wide open field that would become LZ Ranch we went on patrol. Almost as Arty crew member taking shower as chopper lands. There is no berm. The base is still being built. LZ Ranch, Snoul, Cambodia 1970 Photo: Mike Paestrellasoon as we did we found a large bunker complex. We were called back and told to pull guard. I had a bad feeling about this place. We were too exposed. We put out trips and claymores. That night it was eerie but quiet. The next day we filled sand bags,dug in,and squared away the bunkers.

That night I had guard next to the bunker where Dawson,Heaton,and Carl were asleep. It was near 2 AM but I’m not sure. A trip wire went off and a flare blew and I set off the claymore mines. Things got jumbled like in a nightmare. It was dark and I seemed to be running low to the ground while shooting at sappers. They were inside the berm. I didn’t know what happened to Dawson,Carl,and Heaton. I heard explosions. There was chaos. I don’t know how long it went on. We got air and artillery support and the tree line seemed to burst into flames. The ground shook. I stayed near the berm and kept low,shooting at sappers. After a while things quieted down.

When the sun rose I stood up: there was smoke and everything was in disarray. I smelled death. I saw bodies being collected. An officer asked, “How are you?” I was so shocked out all I said was, “This is terrible.” He tried to be nice. He said we were brave. That afternoon the cooks set up hot meals.

A chS2 summary of LZ Ranch. National Archivesaplain was flown in. At the service for the KIAs my squad asked me to speak. I remember saying what a great strong guy Mike Dawson was,that he’d never be forgotten.

Medic received this account of the attack from retired CSM Mike Dunn, a Chief of Section with 1st/21st Field Artillery:

I was there on 16 May when we got overran. My crew did their job and at the end of the fight my howitzer fired the illumination for the LZ to have light. During the fight I remember the cobra’s coming in right in front of my howitzer and firing into the tree line. What an awesome sight that was. Man they were really something. During the fight I was hit in the back of my left arm with a large piece of shrapnel but fortunately it hit me flat and only left a large red mark and soreness. I also experienced rounds flying right next to my head and hearing the noise as they passed. Needless to say I got a little lower at that time. Our base piece (the center Howitzer that does theMike Dunn putting in cross beams on LZ Ranch in Cambodia 1970. Photo: Mike Dunn initial firing) was wiped out when the gooks threw a satchel charge in the bunker and Chief of Section Charles Hamilton was killed. Everyone else inside the bunker was wounded except for one guy who decided to sleep outside under a trailer.

Epilogue: The American casualties on LZ Ranch were 5 killed and 24 wounded. Two reporters from Stars and Stripes who visited the base published a story about its brave defenders. The following month,Colonel Everette Yon,likely because of the casualties suffered,was relieved of his command.

And finally, Medic received this account of the attack from 1st/21st Field Artillery Chief of Section Billy Tutterow:

So much of Nam has been erased from my mind but I do remember the ground attack in Cambodia on LZ Ranch. Like Mike Dunn, I was a crew chief on a 105. As was my friend Charles Hamilton. He and I pulled guard each night till 12:00 or 1:00am. That way half our guys got to sleep all night while the other half pulled guard. The night of the attack we were on guard duty, sitting beside each other, shooting the breeze. He was a southern boy. I think he was from Virginia. I was from Mississippi.

Around 1am I told Hamilton that Shepard was taking my place on guard. I left “Ham” and as I was heading into the bunker to wake Shepherd, the mortars started pouring in. One landed so close, for a few moments I went deaf. I wasn’t wounded. I yelled to the guys “Fire mission!” and they scrambled from the bunker. We began firing rounds immediately. Viet Cong were inside the perimeter, we saw them, but kept firing the 105. As I recall, three of the six guns in the battery had casualties. We had none.

Spooky dropped baskeball lume and the sky lit like daylight. We didn’t know all that was happening, we just fired like crazy. We kept firing till sun up, using almost all our ammo.
With sunlight we saw the devastation. There were dead bodies all around.

That’s when we noticed Hamilton was killed. One of my guys asked me what time I left Hamilton, and I said seconds prior to the rounds coming in. Another man walked the distance from where I was sitting with Hamilton to the bunker entrance. He said it was thirteen seconds. I would have been killed with my friend if I had waited a few more seconds. I am a blessed man.