The Battle for the Tong Le Chon Special Forces Camp

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

As an AF FAC assigned to the 1st Brigade of the US 1st Infantry Division – The Big Red One – I flew out of Phouc Vinh in support of Brigade operations and SF camps located in the III Corps Tactical Zone. Just about every night, one or more of these camps would come under attack. We would then launch a FAC to join the battle and direct the supporting fire of artillery, helicopter gun ships, and tactical air. Most of the attacks were short-lived, usually no more than one or two hours, but they were fiercely fought. The attackers most usually used heavy automatic weapons, 80 mm mortars, and Soviet-made 122 mm rockets.
At 0130 on 11 August 1967, I was roused out of my bunk and dispatched on such a mission. It turned out to be quite a bit more than I had anticipated. The Tong Le Chon SF Camp was under attack.
The Tong Le Chon Camp had been built specifically to protect the Provincial Capitol of An Loc from attack by VC and NVA forces operating from the sanctuary of Cambodia. It was manned by 300 Cambodian mercenaries led by a 12 man SF A Team. It was a model SF Camp that had been cut out of triple-canopy jungle just south of the Fishhook in the middle of the “Iron Triangle.” It had two reinforced perimeters ringed by minefields and barbed wire, and was protected by multiple overlapping fields of fire. If Tong Le Chon fell, the enemy would have had a major psychological victory and a clear path to a key Provincial Capitol not many miles from Saigon.
As I flew toward the Camp the red glow of explosions in the distance lit up the night sky. The weather was marginal with low clouds, no moon, and no horizon. A C-47 flareship had been launched from Bien Hoa and was enroute to the Camp. I briefed the pilot that I wanted him to circle the Camp upwind and that I wanted two flares burning at all times. As I got closer to the Camp, I could see continuous explosions on the ground. It was almost blinding in the intensely dark night. Each flash was followed, a few seconds later, by a dull low thud. As soon as I arrived at the Camp, I began to attract intense ground fire from the enemy’s 12.7 mm machine guns. Red baseball-size tracers weaved across the sky trying to locate me by the sound of my engine. Wisely, I had turned off my running lights and was jinking vigorously to avoid the ground fire.
I contacted the Ground Commander, a SF captain who was badly wounded and half-crying with fear and anger. He reported that the Camp was under a well-planned and coordinated attack from two crack NVA regiments – about 3,000 enemy troops. Their outer perimeter had already been breached and his Command had been decimated. The survivors were desperately attempting to hold the inner perimeter against human-wave assaults. I told him that a Spooky was getting into position overhead and that tactical fighters were being launched from Bien Hoa and Cam Ranh Bay. I had also called for several heavy-fire helicopter teams and an artillery fire mission from our guns at An Loc, about ten miles to the east. I warned him that the weather was touch-and-go, but that we would counter the attack one way or another.
I’ll never forget the desperation in his voice as he asked his own Headquarters if they were prepared to reinforce the Camp. After a long pause, the reply was a terse, “No!” Mounting a hasty reinforcement effort would have certainly sacrificed more friendly forces to an overwhelming enemy force. It was clear to me that unless the resources we had in the air that night did the job, we had written off the Camp.
Flying a semi-circular horseshoe pattern, I began adjusting the 155 mm artillery at An Loc. They quickly bracketed the target and I gave them the command, “Fire for effect.” As often in the past, I was impressed with the devastation wrought by accurate, rapidfire artillery. For the remainder of the battle, the enemy on that side of the Camp were effectively neutralized by the continual pounding.
I next briefed the flight leaders of the Army helicopter gunships. Soon they were darting in and out, stinging the enemy with rockets, grenade, and machine gun fire. In my opinion, the Army helicopter crews were probably the single most unsung group of heroes in Vietnam. Their disciplined airmanship and raw courage under fire were sometimes incredible to watch, and they outdid themselves on this particular night as they dodged through the smoke and clouds, feet above the ground, confusing and destroying the enemy gunners.
Several flights of F-100s and F-4s had now arrived, and were holding at high-altitude overhead. To clear a path for the fighters, I instructed the helicopter gunships to shift to a quadrant where there were enemy gun emplacements and lines of approach. I briefed the fighters on the ground situation, lines of approach to avoid incoming artillery, the helicopter gunship patterns and their recommended attack headings. The Ground Commander was still screaming for help. He was clearly desperate, and requested that bombs be placed as close to his position as possible. I rolled in, fired marking rockets, and began directing flight after flight of tactical fighters. We expended ordnance as rapidly as possible, delivering a combination of 500 pound bombs, napalm, and 20 mm cannon fire on the enemy.
While trying to keep track of the several aspects of the battle, I was jinking, switching radio frequencies, briefing fighters, calling for more sets of fighters, reassuring the Ground Commander, talking to my Command Post, adjusting the flare ship, bringing in more helicopter gunships, firing marking rockets, and coordinating artillery. I had never been so busy in my life!
After three more hours of intensive fighting, the tide of battle seemed to be turning in our favor. All of my rockets were expended and my fuel was getting extremely low. I was completely exhausted but my satisfaction, knowing that we had saved a number of friendly troops, was enormous.
The first rays of dawn were cutting through low clouds and steam was rising from the jungle as I made my way back to Phouc Vinh. My voice was hoarse, my eyes burned, and my hands were shaking. Visions of the battle flashed through my mind as I tried to think ahead to my return to Tong Le Chon. I knew that, with the coming daylight, retreating enemy units would be making their way north through the Fishhook to the sanctuary of Cambodia. I would have to refuel and rearm as quickly as possible to catch them since the ROE in effect at the time restricted me from pursuing them within five kilometers of the Vietnam/Cambodia border. Time was running out.
After a quick turnaround, and topped off with fuel and a full load of 2.75-inch FFARs, I took off once more for Tong Le Chon.
The Camp was a charred and smoking pile of rubble. Over 250 enemy and friendly bodies were scattered across the pockmarked ground or entangled in the barbed wire. The Commander was still on the radio, but his voice was weak with exhaustion as he tried to maintain contact. I could see no signs of life, in fact, no movement at all, except for a red and gold South Vietnamese flag hanging limp, and black smoke rising from several fires. The few remaining friendly survivors were wounded and in underground bunkers waiting for medical aid. Soon, Army choppers bringing replacements and supplies began to arrive, kicking up clouds of red dust as they settled into the Camp.
We received sporadic groundfire, but, after I directed several more airstrikes into the jungle surrounding the Camp, it stopped. I also adjusted artillery into likely enemy assembly locations and directed helicopter gunships along possible escape routes. Soon, the battle was over – at least for the moment.
Epilogue: Tong Le Chon Special Forces Camp came under enemy rocket and mortar attack every few days throughout the remainder of the war. During the TET Offensive of 1968, it came under constant, intensive rocket and reinforced infantry attack every night for several weeks but held up under every onslaught. Finally, during the North Vietnamese Spring and Summer Offensive of 1972, after a Dien Bien Phu- type Campaign in which it withstood waves of infantry and tank attacks and over 10,000 rounds of heavy artillery and rockets daily for over a month, Tong Le Chon fell into enemy hands forever.