The Sad Saga of Fire Base Mary Ann

The Tragic End Note of the Star Crossed 23rd Infantry Americal Division 
FIRE SUPPORT BASE MARY ANN: The last major attack on US forces of the Vietnam War

The morning of March 28, 1971, exactly 47 years ago today, I awoke in my barracks as usual, then took the short walk to my desk at the Americal Division’s Public Information Office. Only an upcoming R&R trip to Bankok, and my “short-timer” days remaining in Vietnam were on my mind. However, it was anything but business as usual when I arrived at the PIO hootch. Oddly hushed, my colleagues scurried about in great haste, grabbing cameras, film, flak jackets, M-16’s and steel pot helmets. Something was definitely up.

SAPPER IN THE WIRE: slow, stealthy and deadly

Overnight, a calamitous sneak attack occurred at an outlying base, Fire Support Base  (FSB) Mary Ann. Dozens of enemy “sappers” infiltrated the base’s perimeter in a stealthy assault that caught Mary Ann troops and officers flatfooted.  In little more than an hour, over 30 US soldiers were killed and 80-plus were wounded.  The fighting that night at Mary Ann was so intense, sometimes hand to hand, that air and artillery support was called in almost at ground zero. By morning, Mary Ann was a disaster area of burned and blown up bunkers, swirling dust from medevac choppers, and the lingering smell of gunpowder mixed in the morning mountain mist.

The attack on FSB Mary Ann came at an uncanny moment in the war. Spring 1971, after all, was a fairly benign time for the Americal Division, as well as throughout most of South Vietnam. The process of Vietnamization, turning the war over to the ARVN forces of the South Vietnam government, was well underway. US withdrawal from the war was only a matter of time; troop levels were steadily diminishing.

A LONG WAY FROM CHU LAI: Firebase Mary Ann was on the fringe border of the Americal Area of Operation

A hilltop stronghold for units of Americal’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Mary Ann was about as far from our main base at Chu Lai as any firebase could be. But the area was thought to be pacified.  The last major fighting around Mary Ann was in August, 1970, when North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars in the area were essentially routed.

So no one saw the Mary Ann attack coming. Looking back, reports said soldiers were high; security was lax; defensive systems and protocols ignored; officers unattentive. Indeed, many officers up to and including the Division commander were relieved of duty and officially reprimanded over the shitstorm that was Mary Ann.

Of course, there’s another side to the story, one of medal-winning valor and heroism on the part of Mary Ann troops and some officers. Indeed, it’s possible that Mary Ann was targeted specifically because the troops there had such a good track record against the enemy. Since eliminating NVA offensives the summer before, Mary Ann forces continued to make life difficult for what Viet Cong guerillas remained, traipsing around in the surrounding bush. The attack on Mary Ann may very well have been retribution for those VC losses.

SAGA OF FIREBASE MARY ANN: A true story well told

Keith Nolan’s excellent book, “Sappers in the Wire”tells a detailed story of the Mary Ann debacle.  A couple of shorter accounts can be found here and here. But no matter how you view it, the pummeling of Mary Ann was simply one more hashmark of shame and dishonor for the 23rd Infantry Americal Division, which was the most maligned of all Army units of the time.  Formed in 1967 as the resurrection of a proud WWII unit originally created “under the Southern Cross” in New Caladonia, the Americal Division in Vietnam is today remembered mostly for the bad things that happened during its short existence: the My Lai massacre, rampant drug use, officer fraggings*. The unruly sneak attack at Mary Ann became its end note.

STAR CROSSED AND MALIGNED: Americal’s Southern Cross shoulder patch

“The morale plagued Americal,” was cited by Colonel Robert D. Heni, Jr., in an Armed Forces Journal editorial on June 7, 1971, as an example of how the “discipline and battleworthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.”

Though historically inaccurate, director Brian DePalma chose to put an Americal shoulder patch on the characters played by Kevin J. Fox and others in “Casualties of War,” a movie based on the true-life story of the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman by US soldiers.

Ironically, another sordid chapter of the Americal’s horrid history came to a close exactly one day after the Mary Ann attack.  On March 29, 1971, a jury convicted Lt. William Calley of premeditated murder for his command of the massacre at My Lai three years earlier. Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment but, as a result of intervention by then President Nixon, never served a day.

MEMORIAL TO MEN OF MARY ANN: To be unveiled this week at Fort Benning, GA

A bookend of horror along with My Lai three years earlier, Mary Ann was a rude beyond belief wake up call for all of us in the Americal, and to our country as a whole. It was the last major attack of the war on US positions, and it hastened both the pullout of US troops and the demise of the Americal, which was disbanded shortly thereafter, in November, 1971. Let the memory of soldiers from Mary Ann, civilians killed at My Lai and elsewhere, and all who did not get back home from the war, be a reminder of how we should and should not conduct ourselves on the world stage now and in the future.

A memorial reunion of survivors and friends and families of those who served on Firebase Mary Ann is being held this week in Fort Benning, GA. A monument will be laid, inscribed with the names and unit patches of the fallen, and a flag will fly in their honor over the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

My colleagues from the Americal PIO office did after-action photos at Firebase Mary Ann.  To my knowledge, those photos were never released.

*FRAGGING: When a soldier attempts to or succeeds in killing  a superior officer or non-com.

AMERICAL ROLE PLAYING: In a story of wartime kidnapping, rape and murder, the Americal Division had it’s close up

12 Replies to “The Sad Saga of Fire Base Mary Ann

  1. Our firebases (or, more accurately, “fire support bases”) were the loneliest and most frightening places of the war. Isolated, typically hacked out of the jungle and expected to defend themselves deep in enemy territory, often undermanned and crudely fortified, always in danger of being overrun, they were deliberate targets that our strategists hoped would draw fire and attacks so that our supporting military forces could retaliate in full. I spent many long nights hunkered down in a fighting hole on firebases like Mary Ann, waiting for terror to come out of the darkness. The thought of all those men dying as the night lit up in flames and explosions all around them, with no way to save themselves — their worst, and final, fears come true — makes my blood cold and robs me of sleep. They died alone, in horror and pain. Their sacrifice must never be forgotten.

  2. Fred……..Your blog is fascinating and well written……a buddy, Lee Habich, forwarded it to me and I’ve just now posted it on Facebook…..keep up the great work!…..Leith Adams

  3. Lee was one of my PIO colleagues with Americal Division in Chu Lai. Towards the end of my tour, Lee was my one-day guide in Saigon where he was TDY, handling our press operations. A man of few but well chosen words. Were you there too?

  4. Wow, I didn’t know there was a LZ Mary Ann reunion.
    I was not stationed on Mary Ann. I was assigned to the 178th Assault Support Helicopter Company (Box Cars) as a Crew Chief/door gunner.
    I have visited Mary Ann on many a resupply mission. I do remember taking about thirty troops to Mary Ann and rotating about thirty troops out the day before it was overrun.
    I think the second or third day after the battle, I returned for another resupply mission. While setting on the pad, I remember seeing a GI running like the devil was on his tail. I heard the pilot saying “I got it” and we ascended with a very hard forward and violent climb with a turn to our left. I was on the left M-60 and as I looked to my left rear I saw a large explosion on the pad where we were setting.

  5. Hey Guys, I was in and out of the O’l IO most of 70. Gabella was running it. Smith, Grambergu, Miller, Dreesen, Palmer, Perkins, Walker, Hayes, Chavis, Winkler, Pennington, Shelby, Elschlager, Abatemarco, Breidenbach, Mcgillen, Richardson, Majaeus and “Baochi” the vietdog. The mind fog of age is clearing up, the memories are still brilliant of how stupid humanity was and still is. That girls image is still in my dreams. Sin loi (too bad) That’s me on the cover of the Americal History mag. I have a stories about diamonds in a wall in Quang Ngai, Dragons on smoke, Godzilla in the grass (Anything over ten feet is a fuckin dinosauer), masterbating monkeys, nose art on willies chopper, tigers and snakes.

    763 447 9628 call

  6. Found this article and subsequent comments regarding the attack of FSB Mary Ann. I’m a survivor of the siege that occurred in the early morning hours of Mar 28, 1971. I was attached to G Btry/55th ADA, Quad 50. I had been on the FSB about one week, following an Art.15 and reassignment from LZ Dottie, and with less than two weeks remaining of an 18 month RVN tour(s). By the afternoon hours of Mar 28th, while trying to recover our position, I was notified by the Red Cross of a family death back home – and I was outta there, never to return. All I left with was the soiled and tired uniform I was wearing. Everything else was destroyed and burning in, what used to be our hootch, prior to the siege.
    Thank you all for your support and memorial to those who paid the ultimate price – my brothers in arms.

  7. We were the Combat Engineers from “C” company 26th Combat Engineers who were assigned to Maryann to secure the perimeter. We hated that FSB cause it was so vulnerable. Our squad was there three times before it was attacked. The last time was in January 1970. Each time we would arrive our squad leader would suggest to the 1st Lieutenant from the 196th that we recommend clearing out the jungle from around the perimeter. Each time the Lieutenant would decline our suggestions and tell us just to secure the wire and get it done as soon as we can and get the Hell off their FSB. Grunts never liked Combat Engineers for some reason, probably because when the shit hit the fan we would be fighting right next to them and do as much damage as they would do to the enemy. I guess they didn’t want to share the glory of battle with us. To me the only glory in war is if you survive the enemy attacks. Other than that there is nothing glorified with war. Young people die cause two Governments can’t work things out. Maryann’s attack and errors on our part were very sad. Our company was at the DMZ for operation “Lam Son 719” when the attack on FSB Maryann happened. We were all saddened by the news.

  8. I went north to Dong Ha and Quang Tri for Lam Son 719. Ugliest thing I ever saw. Glad we both made it back. Thanks for your comment. Welcome home.

  9. Correction: After reading my published comment above I realized I stated that “the last time we were there was in January 1970”, that was a mistake, the last time were were there was January 1971.
    To FredinVietnam, Welcome home to you too Sir. I met my real life Guardian Angel during Lam Son 719. She was an orphan and 10 years old Vietnamese girl named Lin Su who I credit for saving the lives of many of us during a mine sweep operation on a road to FSB alpha 2 on the DMZ. I write the entire story for the tribute to Lin Su on Facebook on Memorial Day every year, I will be doing it again this Memorial Day. She was truly our squad’s guardian angel.

  10. Dear “Pineapple” (really? Is that how I should refer to you?): I read your tribute to Lin Su last year. Very moving. Unforgettable. An honor to be meeting you in this space.

  11. Hey FredinVietnam, The honor is all mine to meet you Sir. My name is Dan Dole, once assigned to my unit in Nam I was given my code/nickname “Pineapple” due to my last name. It sure was a much better code/nickname than some of the other guys received. We had assigned names like Meathead, Monkey,Shorty,Perv etc. My Demo buddy was Swede, due to living in Minnesota and being a big guy.
    I look forward to posting my little heroes tribute (Lin Su) this Memorial Day. I have a framed picture of her hanging on my Vietnam Wall in my home labeled “My Little Hero Lin Su” I see and thank her every day.
    Your story above was well written and right on the money with the details. Our squad was made up of 10 soldiers and of those 10 soldiers 5 of us did all the work, due to the other 5 being on the drug amnesty program. They didn’t even have to leave the base. They never went out on missions. They just sat back in the rear and did their Dope. We didn’t want them out in the bush with us. It was bad in our Company. At least a third of our Company took advantage of the stupid Army Program. ” Army Intelligence” what an oxymoron. Have a great week ahead Sir.

  12. Pineapple, My name is Brenda McKelvey and my brother Joe Neel was there on the night of the attack. He and his best friend, another guy names Joe, made it out. I know this attack affected my brother for many years. He has only talked it in about the last 5-6 years. There is a reunion in Columbus, Ga every year for those that were part of the Americal Division that was there. If you want a contact for the reunion, let me know. I read the book “Sappers In The Wire” and it really opened my eyes to what Joe and all the guys went through. Thank you for your service and Welcome Home.. I also have supported our deployed military since 2005 thru the Soldiers’ Angels organization. We would not have the freedoms we enjoy if it were not for our military, past and present.

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