The Battle of Dak Seang, USSF Camp

submitted by: Alva Leon Matheson

Dak Seang, a small Special Forces outpost in central Vietnam, lived up to its name when it came under siege on April 1, 1970, by two regiments of North Vietnamese infantry and a regiment of artillery. Called “The River of Blood’’ by the Montagnards, a small nomadic tribe living near the Laos–Vietnam border, Dak Seang sat along the Ho Chi Minh Trail used to funnel troops from the north into the Central Highlands. Although the Montagnards didn’t recognize the Vietnamese government, they were friendly to the United States and were used frequently by the CIA during the secret war in Laos, and the Special Forces at Dak Seang.
In April 1970 a US Army Special Forces A Team and several companies of Montagnard CIDG manned the camp. The senior American, 25-year-old Captain Paul Landers, was the A Team Leader (Paul Landers retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel and then served as the Civilian Personnel Director for Special Operations Command at Mac Dill AFB, Florida). “We were never overrun,’’ Landers is quoted as saying. “The only way in and out was by air and we were resupplied by plane. The people pinned inside the compound were able to keep the enemy at bay during the day. At night, they were held back by B-52 bombings and aerial napalm attacks. The enemy eventually pulled back, leaving hundreds of burned bodies behind and we don’t know how many dead and wounded they took with them. The Air Force provided unbelievable, fantastic support, losing three planes and two helicopters.’’
Landers said he was knocked to his knees when the attack began, taking shrapnel in the back when a round blew out the back of the room he was in. Later that day, another chunk of shrapnel sliced open his thumb. On the fourth or fifth day of the siege, a rocket hit a building he was near and he felt a sharp pain at the front of the base of his neck. “I thought I had lost my arm but I could move my fingers and then I saw red spurts shooting out,’’ Landers said. “A piece of shrapnel came close to a major artery and my windpipe.’’
By the time a medevac helicopter took him out six days later, Landers had been wounded three times, each of the other 10 men in his Special Forces A-Team had been wounded at least once, one South Vietnamese officer had been killed and more than three dozen Montagnard strikers were dead. Landers was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with “V” device (denoting Valor), and three Purple Heart Medals for his part in this battle. He also provided an eyewitness report and recommendation that led to the Medal of Honor being awarded to one of the two Green Beret medics with the team.
Dak Seang was eight kilometers east of the Laotian border in the Dak Poko Valley. The siege had started on April 1, 1970, when major elements of a North Vietnamese division infiltrated through the mountains between the Laotian border and the Dak Poko valley and tried to take the camp.
In the first few days of the siege, three USAF C- 7s were shot down while trying to parachute food, ammunition, and water into the camp. After those shootdowns, they went to night drops, with AC-119s vectoring the C-7s over the camp and turning their searchlights onto the camp just prior to the drop and extinguishing the light as soon as the parachutes came out of the C-7s.
The bunkers and quarters inside the perimeter fence are still pretty much a mess and hadn’t been cleaned up yet. This photo isn’t of sufficient resolution to show them, but there were still NVA corpses in the fence where they were caught by napalm. (That was where I first heard the term “crispy critters.”) A shot-down Army helicopter can be seen on the runway just north of where the foot trail crosses it.
Most of the air strikes I controlled were one to five kilometers north of the camp, and were in support of the patrols the Special Forces sent out to try and stop the NVA recoilless rifles and mortars that kept pounding them.
After the initial attempts to breach the wire and get inside the camp failed, much of the siege turned into an artillery duel with the NVA shooting into the camp from hidden positions. There was no friendly artillery at the Dak Seang Camp. The nearest friendly artillery was the 105 mm tubes at Dak To about 17 nautical miles to the south. The targets around Dak Seang were out of range for these artillery pieces; so some were relocated to a temporary Fire Support Base ‘Tango’ to support the Dak Seang battles.
On at least two occasions, my mission for the day was to carry an Army forward artillery observer in the right seat to control fire support missions out of Tango. Those weren’t nearly as interesting as controlling air strikes, and I don’t remember them as being particularly effective. Plus, the Army FO got sick each flight.
The NVA recoilless rifles were pretty easy to spot when they went off because of their back-blast, but it was almost impossible to spot enemy mortars unless you happened to be looking right at one when it went off.
One day a broadcast in the blind on Guard channel advised, “Heavy Artillery Warning. All aircraft move immediately, east of the blue line.” Two minutes later a B-52 Arc Light mission was put in to the west of the camp on a north-to-south run-in line. Tom Stump, an A-1 Skyraider “Spad” pilot from DaNang, (quoted below) was airborne over the Dak Seang valley and heard that same ‘Heavy Artillery Warning.’
After the initial NVA attempts to overrun the camp failed, most of the battle hinged on taking out the NVA units on the slopes of Nui Ek Mountain, and between Dak Seang and Laos. As we became familiar with the area, the FACs kept working the same general areas, and almost all of the air strikes I controlled were around Nui Ek Mountain. In fact on some days I put in as many as 16 flights of fighters on the same set of coordinates. It was also not uncommon to work with the same F-100 flight lead from Phan Rang or Tuy Hoa twice during a four- hour mission. That made briefings simple, “Didn’t I work with you about 90 minutes ago?”
“Well, we’re still working the same target.”
One air strike I recall stands out as testimonial to the durability of NVA soldiers. I was working on the west slope of Nui Ek supporting a Mike Force reaction company when a helicopter trying to resupply them was shot down. The chopper made a forced landing close to the top of Nui Ek. The crew got out of the chopper and made it into the perimeter of the Mike Force.
The 12.7 mm gun that had shot down the Huey was about 100 meters east of the downed chopper, and the chopper lay between the 12.7 mm and the Mike Force. My next flight was a set of F-4s from DaNang (“Gunfighters”) and it was very easy to get their eyes on the downed helicopter. I told them where the 12.7 mm gun was in relation to the helicopter and lead dropped his bombs about 15 meters west of the gun-pit. I watched the NVA crew on the gun continue shooting until they saw the bombs come off the F-4’s wings, then they dived for cover in the gun pit. After lead’s bombs exploded, I watched as the gun crew immediately jumped out of the pit and disappeared into the jungle to the east. Somehow, they had survived a 15-meter bomb blast! They probably had internal injuries and broken eardrums, but I was flabbergasted to see them get up and run into the jungle. It’s true they had protection from the shrapnel, but it’s also surprising the blast didn’t at least knock them out, or at least senseless. The second F-4 put his bombs right into the gun pit. The Gunfighters then used their guns to destroy the downed helicopter.
I also made the best rocket shot of my FAC tour at Dak Seang. I was working a flight of F-100s trying to knock out a mortar position. We were kind of groping for it because I didn’t have a visual on the mortar, and I was going by the description of the guy on the ground who was taking fire into his position. He couldn’t see the mortar either, but could hear it each time it fired. As the lead F-100 came off target, I was just getting into position to mark for his wingman when a 12.7 mm we hadn’t seen before opened up on lead. By pure luck, my eyes were right on the 12.7 mm when it fired. I pulled my nose over to it, rolled the wings level and shot a rocket that landed right in the middle of the gun pit. I then told ‘two’ to hit my smoke and he put two Mk-117s right on top of the gun. I’m not sure we ever did get the mortar, but there was only a big, smoking hole where the 12.7 mm had been.
Another interesting item I learned at Dak Seang is how disruptive the noise of jets can be to a commander on the ground trying to control his troops and talk to either me or to an artillery battery. There were several times when a ground commander asked me to hold my fighters high and dry so he could have relative quiet to finish shouting instructions to his maneuvering troops. That was something I had never thought of before, and something I don’t remember our instructors covering at Hurlburt or Holley.
On one of those occasions I was talking to a ground commander as an AK-47 round hit him. That voice is still etched in my memory. He was talking in a normal tone of voice, telling me where I needed to put the bombs. I could hear many, many gunshots in the background whenever he keyed the mike, when all of a sudden he started screaming. “I’ve been hit. I’ve been hit. Get us out of here. I’ve been hit. Help us. You’ve got to help us.” He then quit talking and his radio operator came up on the radio. We got the air in. He survived. And I later got to meet him at the hospital in Kontum. He was very grateful, and I felt pretty good.
Tom Stump, the A-1 Skyraider ‘Spad’ pilot, mentioned above, added the following to the author’s story.
“You bring back some not-so-fond memories of a very bad valley. Speaking of radio calls, there is one over Dak Seang that I remember very vividly. The weather was not good but my wingman and I managed to get there under the overcast. The bad guys were taking advantage of the cloud cover and were in an all-out attack. As usual, the FAC that morning, in spite of the weather, beat us there and had been trying for about half an hour to get some assets. The weather was too marginal to bring the fast movers in close to the camp. Anyway, after we made several napalm passes, the guy on the radio in the compound yelled, “Shit hot! I can hear them screaming!” This was testimony to the effectiveness of napalm, the close proximity of the bad guys and the great work of the FACs pinpointing the bad guys’ location so close to the good guys while they were under heavy fire. Many of the enemy that morning were stopped in the perimeter wire. I have been in contact with John Liner who was, on occasion, the radioman in the camp during that first week.
The folks at Dak Seang owe their lives to the FACs that stayed over them every day and night, keeping the bad guys at bay until the siege was broken. I am surprised there isn’t more written about this battle that produced a Medal of Honor winner and cost so many lives.”