The Tragic End Note of the Star Crossed 23rd Infantry Americal Division
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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.