A Silver Star at Ky Son
Dedicated to the true warriors of B Company, 1/69th Armor, who let me call 2nd Platoon home for 4 months during my tour in Vietnam.
'We were riding into it. I could just make out the misty silhouettes of ships at sea. Jets flew overhead. All were part of the combined operation. I was perched outside the turret. Our tank commander and 2nd Platoon leader, LT Rick Hasty, wanted me to learn how to drive so I'd make rank more quickly, but there hadn't been time to teach me. An experienced drive, Chuck Meerholz, had just joined the platoon, so he got the job that day. Bayou Cajun Sgt. Coombs was gunner and Texan, Specialist Rountree, the driver and loader. As we neared the objective, LT Hasty, knowing I couldn't button up inside the tank, told me to stay behind, so I jumped off and joined a group of ROK medics by their APCs (armored personnel carriers).'
That's how I described the beginning of a battle I witnessed 36 years ago. I was a PFC, trained as an infantryman, who had been assigned to a tank company. Your basic on—the—job—training. In a few short months I'd almost become a real tanker, and the crew of B21 'Bootlegger' adopted me as family.
The battle of Ky Son involved Company B, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor, 4th Infantry Division, and elements of the Republic of Korea (ROK) 'Tiger' Division's 26th Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry (Mechanized) and supporting air and seaborne units. The Tiger Division was based at Camp Townes near Qui Nhon, not far from the South China Sea.
The combined operation was called MENG HO, or Brave Tiger, 11. Its objective was centered on the village of Ky Son, whose inhabitants had been evacuated.
Through Tet 1968 and beyond, 1st Bn, 69th Armor had been operating in the Dak To—Pleiku—Kontum sector of II Corps, conducting missions ranging from road, convoy and bridge security to perimeter guard at hilltop outposts such as Dak To and fire support missions using tank main guns as artillery.
Our 52 ton M48A3 Patton tanks were powered by 750 h.p. diesels. They mounted 90m.m. main guns with co—axial .30 caliber machine guns with a .50 caliber machine gun on the turret next to the tank commander's (TC's) hatch. Some tanks carried two .50 cal. MGs. Tank crewmen carried individual weapons ranging from M16s to captured AK—47s. All wore .45 automatic pistols. There was usually at least one M79 grenade launcher onboard.
In early April 1/69th Armor rumbled east along Highway 19, through the Mang Yang Pass where a French armored had been decimated by a Viet Minh ambush, enroute to An Khe.
B Company's first set of missions with the 173rd Airborne netted it zero contact, but other battalion elements had better luck when they surprised an enemy ambush, killing 46 members of the NVA 95th regiment as they attempted to flee.
Now we moved further east, to the coast, to work with the ROKs in Meng Ho 11. The mission: search out and destroy all enemy forces that had returned to that rice—rich area of Binh Dinh province.
"As we neared the place we were supposed to spend the night (laager in military terms), our CO, Captain Timothy Grogan decided on another, nearby location. The sight of the South China Sea, the beach with its small dunes were too inviting. As if on cue, all tanks turned off the road, plowing through the sand. Late that afternoon we enjoyed a cookout with beer all round.
"The company was drawn into as defensive perimeter. Guard shifts were set up and crews prepared for tomorrow's battle under the starry benediction of the Southern Cross. Just before dozing off I heard a strange sound, like an amplified 'click.' Curious, I got up and walked towards its source. There in the dusk was Capt. Grogan, holder of the Distinguished Service Cross by year's end, driving golf balls into the sea. I'd forgotten he was am avid golfer who carried some clubs and a supply of balls in his tank.'
Ky Son was backed by a lagoon. The NVA had built some 50 two—man bunkers in a tight semi—circle around it, with the rest of their force positioned inside it. In support of ROK infantry, which had thrown a cordon around Ky Son, B Company, 1/69th linked up with Tiger troops of the 26th Regiment. LT Hasty's 2nd Platoon, held in reserve until the morning of April 26, now moved into the line.
'The last of the air strikes had left white geysers rising skyward. I had taken cover about 100 yards away behind an old foundation. Tanks and infantry were closing in. The sounds of a firefight filled the air. A Jeep pulled up. A clean—shaven man in new fatigues jumped out, spotted me, and ran over. ' Is this where the action is?' he asked, shooting some newsreel footage.
'Yeah, this is where it's at!' I yelled, pulling him down behind the wall. Seeming unsure about shooting more film, he waited a couple of minutes, now and then peering over the wall. Then with a terse 'See you later' he ran back to his Jeep.
'Watching the battle unfold was like viewing footage shot by a correspondent, making me feel really useless.
'From my left I noticed a Korean medic running towards me, waving his hands and motioning me to follow. As I ran behind him, he pointed to where I could see Rountree heading in our direction. His hands looked like they were burned. Hanging his arm loosely around my shoulder, he muttered, 'Goddamn, Dwyer...I might be going into shock...'
'Now feeling really useless and stupid, I walked him over to the medics and told them to treat him for shock. A med—evac chopper was landing. What looked like our tank was approaching in a round—a—bout manner.
''Dwyer,' Rountree said. I stood near him, ' Coombs is okay, not wounded too badly, and the lieutenant is alright. Don't know about the driver.'
'Our tank pulled up and stopped. A body bag was quickly filled and loaded aboard the waiting chopper. After Rountree and Coombs boarded, it took off.
"Walking over to see what happened to Bootlegger, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of LT Hasty walking towards me. His face was putty gray and tear—stained, his eyes terrible. He looked somewhere beyond me and said in a voice I'd never heard before, 'Clean out the turret. You'll need lots of water.' Ambling off, he was stopped by Capt. Grogan, who tried to console him, but LT Hasty walked quickly away.
'I was left to digest what he'd told me. Lots of water. That body bag. I walked over to our tank and noticed a hole about the size of a half—dollar in the front slope. It had been made by an RPG—2 rocket that had penetrated the armor there, killing the driver instantly before causing the damage that injured Rountree and Coombs. All I remember about cleaning the turret is an odor I'd never smelled before and never wanted to smell again.'
It took a while for me to learn what had happened to LT Hasty and Bootlegger during the battle of Ky Son, the action that earned our tank commander the Silver Star.
As B21 approached the village, it and another tank, B77, were hit almost immediately, having run up against the main body of the enemy. While the rest of B Company disengaged and moved to the rescue, LT Hasty found himself with a wounded crew and dead driver 30 yards in front of the enemy's front line. Ordering his wounded crewmen off the tank, he put out the fire caused by the NVA rocket, then single—handedly loaded, sighted and fired the main gun until a round jammed in the breechblock. Continuing to fight, Hasty fired the co—axial machine gun, his own rifle, and the M79 grenade launcher before emptying his .45 automatic at the enemy. There being only flares left, he fired them at the enemy to keep their heads down while he climbed onto the front deck. He was somehow able to maneuver around and in front of Meerholz to reach the controls and get the tank into reverse and back to friendly lines.
Meanwhile, 2nd Platoon's only remaining tank, B33, plus the rest of B Company had drawn up into a position giving them a clear field of fire at the escaping enemy. American armor and Korean infantry killed 80% of the NVA force, wiping it off the enemy order of battle.
Upon completion of MENG HO 11 the ROKs threw a party, preceded by an awards ceremony during which 1/69th received plaques and Tiger Division patches.
'After the band, with real live girls, had entertained us, we went to the beach. Steaks and cold beer were brought in. B Company took a much needed break and had a real picnic; swimming, drinking, sleeping in the sun. And I pondered the vagaries of fate, praying fervently the next chance I had to go to mass.'
'In Vietnam 1/69th Armor earned a Meritorious Unit Citation, with B Company's 1st Platoon being awarded a Special Presidential Unit Citation for the Battle of LZ Victor. B Company's Dwight Johnson earned the Medal of Honor for actions "above & beyond the call of duty" on 15 Jan 1968.
Recently, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 69th Armor led the 3rd ID charge into Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They will soon be returning for their second tour of duty.
Note: This article, based on an unpublished MS originally written not long after the event, might contain errors of fact. If I have inadvertently angered anyone or omitted important information, I apologize.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian