The Battle of Suoi Tre (Vietnamese: suối Tre) occurred during the early morning of 21 March 1967 during Operation Junction City, a search and destroy mission by American military forces in Tay Ninh Province of South Vietnam, to the west of the capital Saigon. After being challenged heavily to begin with, the Americans gained the upper hand and completed a convincing victory over the Viet Cong. They found 647 bodies and captured seven prisoners, 65 crew-served and 94 individual weapons. The Americans losses were 36 dead and 190 wounded, a fatality ratio of more than twenty to one in their favour.
On 19 March, American helicopters dropped two infranty battalions off in a clearing near Suoi Tre to build a fire support base to be used in search and destroy missions against the Communists. During the airlift, seven helicopters were damaged. On March 21, a Viet Cong attack started before dawn at 6:30 a.m., headlined by mortars, and followed by a large-scale infantry charge. They overwhelmed parts of the American perimeter at first, and forced them to withdraw inwards. After a period, American reinforcements broke through the Communist envelope to assist their besieged colleagues, and firepower and artillery helped them gain the upper hand. The Communists stubbornly fought on, with some carrying wounded compatriots forward in follow-up infantry charges, but they were eventually forced to withdraw with heavy casualties.
On 20 March, in an area surrounded by a tree line of sparse woodland that had been scarred by defoliants, American helicopters landed the 3rd Battalion of the 22d Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery, led by Lieutenant Colonels John A. Bender and John W. Vessey, Jr., respectively, as part of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division led by Colonel Marshall B. Garth. Their objective was to establish Fire Support Base Gold, which would be used to support search and destroy missions of Operation Junction City. The Americans did not anticipate heavy action.
The landing area was an elliptical clearing close to Suoi Tre, near the center of War Zone C and 90 km northwest of Saigon. Only 3 km away, during Operation Attleboro a few months earlier, the Americans had defeated the Communists at the Battle of Ap Cha Do. The 272nd Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division had been involved in that battle, and had recovered since then.
On March 19 as the three sets of helicopters landed, five heavy remote-controlled charges were set off by the Viet Cong in the landing clearing. Three helicopters were destroyed and six more damaged, leaving fifteen killed and 28 wounded. A Viet Cong claymore-type mine was also detonated against C Company of the 3rd Battalion, wounding five infantrymen.
Company B of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, was assigned the east portion of the defensive perimeter, Company A the western half. Later that day the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry landed at Fire Support Base Gold and moved to the northwest. Its final airlift attracted Communist fire, and another seven helicopters were damaged.
On 20 March work was done to improve the fire support base's perimeter defenses, which turned out to be fortunate for the Americans as the Battle of Suoi Tre was to begin the next day.
At 04:30 a night patrol from Company B, operating outside the perimeter, reported movement near its ambush site. However no further movement was detected for two hours. At 06:30 the patrol prepared to return to camp. One minute later, explosions were set off in the area as the US base came under heavy attack from enemy 60 mm and 82 mm mortars. Simultaneously, the patrol was attacked by a Viet Cong force. Within five minutes, the patrol had been overpowered, and all of its men were killed or wounded.
The first Communist mortar round landed on the doorstep of a company command post; seconds later another exploded outside battalion headquarters. An estimated 650 mortar rounds fell while the Viet Cong advanced toward the perimeter. As they moved closer, machine guns and recoilless rifles joined the attack as the Communists prepared to assault the position.
Minutes later, the entire perimeter came under attack by waves of Communist infantry emerging from the jungle and firing recoilless rifles, RPG-2 rockets, automatic weapons, and small arms. The heaviest attacks were concentrated on the northeastern and southeastern portions of the base. As the Communist offensive intensified, the three US artillery batteries began to return mortar fire at their Communist counterparts. During the first assault, Company B reported that its 1st Platoon positions on the south-eastern perimeter had been penetrated and that a reaction force from the 2nd Battalion, 77th Artillery, was needed to reinforce them. Artillery was sent to the perimeter to help repulse the continuing attacks.
At 07:00 the first forward aerial observer arrived to direct American air strikes against the Communists. At the same time, two batteries of 105 mm howitzers located at nearby fire support bases were brought within 100 m of the battalion's perimeter. At 07:11, Company B reported that its 1st Platoon had been overrun and faced by an infantry charge. Air strikes were called in all along the wood line to the east to ease the pressure on the besieged company. Then, the air controller directing these strikes was shot down by automatic weapons fire. At 07:50 the Company B commander requested that the artillery fire beehive rounds (canisters filled with hundreds of metal darts) into the southeastern and southern sections of his perimeter. At 07:56 Company B reported that complete Communist penetration had been made in the 1st Platoon sector and ammunition was depleted there. Ammunition and twenty men from Company A were sent to assist B Company. At 08:13 the northeastern section of the perimeter was overrun by another infantry charge. At 08:15, elements of Company A which had established an ambush just outside the perimeter the previous night charged into the camp's perimeter and assumed defensive positions, managing to evade the surrounding Viet Cong.
Company A reported that the Viet Cong had penetrated the northern perimeter. Ten minutes later an American quad-.50 machine gun located there was hit by RPG-2 rocket rounds and overrun. As the attacking Communists reached the weapon and attempted to turn it on the Americans, the gun was blown apart by a round from a 105 mm howitzer crew from their position 75 m away. By 08:40 the Americans on the northeastern, eastern, and southeastern perimeter had withdrawn to a secondary defensive line around the artillery. The northern, western, and southern defenders were managing to hold despite large numbers of Viet Cong who had come within 15 m from the defensive positions, and within hand grenade range of the battalion command post and only 5 m from the battalion aid station. The American howitzers, now pointing almost horizontally, began firing beehive rounds into the Viet Cong at point-blank range. Each round had 8,000 finned steel missiles directed at their target.
American air strikes were brought in within 50 m of their compatriots and supporting artillery pounded areas around the perimeter to stop the Communist influx. When the artillerymen had exhausted their supply of beehive rounds, they began to fire high explosive rounds at point-blank range. By 09:00 the northern, western, and southern sectors of the perimeter were holding despite ongoing Viet Cong pressure. The positions on the east had withdrawn inwards, but were still intact.
The 3rd Brigade headquarters had already alerted its other units conducting operations to the west. They were the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, the mechanized 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry, and the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor. When word of the attack reached these forces, they returned immediately to base. The 2nd Battalion of the 12th Infantry moved from the northwest and the mechanized infantry and armor battalions moved from the southwest until they reached the stream, where they were held up while finding a feasible crossing site, of which there was only one.
At 09:00 the relief column from the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry broke through the Communists and linked up with the depleted Company B. With the replenished forces and firepower, the two units were able to counterattack to the east and reestablish the original perimeter. The Viet Cong continued attacking, using wounded soldiers who had been bandaged earlier in the same battle. The Americans reported that they were advancing, even though some could not walk and had to be carried into offensive positions by colleagues.
Twelve minutes after the first US relief unit arrived, the mechanized infantry and armor column broke through the jungle from the southwest to reinforce the American defenders. With their 90 mm guns firing canister rounds and machine guns raking the Communists, they moved into the advancing Viet Cong, cutting them down and forcing them to withdraw. By 09:30 the base perimeter had been re-secured and thirty minutes later, helicopters had arrived to evacuate the wounded Americans. By 10:45 the battle was over, except for various armored cars and tanks that pursued the retreating Communists, who were also targeted with artillery and air strikes. This continued until noon.
The Americans counted 647 bodies, took seven prisoners and 65 crew-served and 94 individual weapons. Of the weapons captured, fifty were RPG-2 rocket launchers. The Americans lost only 36 killed and 190 wounded.
Documents captured in the area showed that intensive planning had been made by the Viet Cong before the attack. The attacking force was identified by the Americans as the 272nd Regiment of the 9th Viet Cong Division, and elements of U-80 Artillery. The 272nd was considered by the Americans to be one of the best organized and equipped Communist units and was one of the few that dared to make daylight attacks.
- Rogers, p. 136.
- Rogers, p. 135.
- Rogers, p. 137.
- Rogers, p. 138.
- Rogers, p. 139.
- Rogers, p. 140.
- Rogers, Bernard William (1989). Vietnam Studies Cedar Falls – Junction City: A Turning Point. United States Army Center of Military History. http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/Vietnam/90-7/cont.htm.
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