Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Men Stayed at Charlie

Today, it's a footnote in history.  In April of 1972 it was national news.  Today, it is remembered mostly by  men who were there. And when Fire-base Charlie in the central highlands of the Republic of Vietnam fell forty years ago I was there.

Fire-base Charlie was situated athwart a North Vietnamese infiltration route in a mountain pass northwest of Kontum City.  It was manned by the 470 officers and men of the 11th Airborne Batallion, Army of the Republic of Vietnam and one American adviser.

From almost the moment it was occupied on 12 April 1972, Charlie was under continuing vicious attack.  Over those three days, the ground defense was bolstered by air strikes and Army Cobra helicopter gunships controlled by the American adviser, call sign Dusty Cyanide.  By the afternoon of 15 April, conditions on Charlie were desperate.  Defenders, out of ammunition, held their positions using hand grenades, knives, clubbed rifles, Air Force tactical air and Army attack helicopter support.   

I flew in support of Charlie twice on April 15th.  After a mission early in the afternoon, we were replaced by another team from my company, the Pink Panthers, who, when they expended, were replaced by a team of Cobras from the 57th Assault Helicopter Cougars. The Cougars were relieved by another team of Panthers and we were launched on a second mission at dusk. We followed battle by radio as we flew northward.

We checked in with Dusty Cyanide in time to hear "You broke the attack!" and "Shoot 50 meters north of the big fire."  The problem is, we could see no less than three big fires an and three or four smaller ones.  Otherwise, the mountains were pitch black.  We settled things by putting a pair of rockets 50 meters north of the largest fire in the middle and were told "That's it Panther - put it right there!" and, a pass or two later, "OK Panther, you broke the attack." and "We abandoning position" and, I think a direction of egress."  We put the rest of our load between the big fire an the assumed position of the friendlies.  The next thing we heard from the out-of-breath voice below us was "You broke the attack. We're clear, heading down the mountain," and then nothing.

When the survivors had been recovered, Dusty Cyanide, sent us his gratitude via newsman Peter Arnett.  The message was "Those first guns were good.  They broke the attack.  But that last team was shit hot. They broke things up and covered our escape." Peter Arnett came by our Company Club to deliver the message in person.

For his actions on Firebase Charlie an in getting the survivors off the mountain, Major John Duffy, Dusty Cyanide, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  He deserved more.

The 1972 South Vietnamese Literature Award went to a book titled "The Red Flames of Summer" by Phan Nhat Nam. The book was based on survivor accounts of the actions at Charlie.  A popular song called "The Men Stayed at Charlie" followed.

Of the 470 men who initially occupied Charlie only 35 walked off.  

The rest stayed at Charlie.