It was finally spring in South Vietnam. On March 28, 1971, the morning’s sticky warmth, which had replaced cold monsoon rains, felt reassuring on my stroll from the mess hall to the Americal Division Public Information Office. My thoughts were only of a letter to Natalie that I was about to post. “My R&R leave to Bangkok has been approved,” I had written. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to get out of Chu Lai and Vietnam, even if only for a week. And when I get back here, I’ll be skying home to The World in a matter of weeks.”
That last part was a lie. I was “short”—less time left on my tour than the amount I already served. But not that short. It still might be months before I’d board the Freedom Bird out of Vietnam for keeps. But in ‘Nam, fantasies made it easier to cope.
My typewriter awaited at the Information Office. I had every reason to expect a routine day writing bullshit press releases and feel-good feature stories for the weekly division newspaper. However, turmoil greeted me inside the hootch, jolting me back to reality. My colleagues scurried about in an unusual frenzy, grabbing cameras, film, flak jackets, and pistol belts. This was different.
“Matt!” I shouted to the senior non-com in the office. “What the fuck’s going on?” The sergeant hustled past me without slowing down. He blurted a dreadful one-line answer over his shoulder. “Sappers in the wire at Mary Ann.”
My blood went cold. A rare breed of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) commando, 50 sappers led a calamitous pre-dawn sneak attack that caught troops and officers flatfooted at our division’s artillery Fire Support Base Mary Ann. There were 260 US soldiers at Mary Ann. More than thirty of them were killed; eighty-plus were wounded.
Business as usual was out the window. I snatched an office Pentax, my M-16 rifle, and saddled up with my colleagues. We’d be shooting after-action photos. It was sure to be frightful. On the hour long chopper ride, I recalled a demonstration I witnessed during my first week in Vietnam. Sitting bored on a bleachers bench with a bunch of other FNGs—Fuckin’ New Guys—I revived seeing a chieu hoi sapper—a surrendered enemy soldier turned instructor for our side— slither through rows of coiled barbed wire unscathed. “Did you see what I saw?” I asked the GI next to me.
“It must be some kind of trick,” he said with equal disbelief. “Like those magicians on the Ed Sullivan Show.’’
Then the lithe teenager did it again, effortlessly. This time we watched within touching distance. It was a trick alright. A terrifying one that I never forgot.
Sappers were the monsters under the bed in Vietnam, feared for their relentless infiltration capabilities. In another life, these tiny, wiry men would be ideal horse-racing jockeys. Seemingly double jointed, sappers silently and slowly—sometimes taking hours—crawled inch by inch through razor sharp concertina wire, the kind typically tangled eight feet high and six feet deep to protect US bases. Sappers worked stripped down to loin cloths, or even naked, their bodies greased and blackened for camouflage. They came well armed towing TNT satchel charges, AK-47 automatic rifles, knives and grenades. But to get through the wire, often their only tools were hands, teeth and bare toes.
Sappers weren’t suicide bombers. Their job was to initiate an assault on a confined base, and then withdraw. Once inside a base, with the advantage of surprise, sappers wreaked mortal havoc at close range. They were expertly trained, highly disciplined, and meticulous in their planning. The mere thought of sappers in the wire in the dark at Mary Ann scared the crap out of me like nothing else in Vietnam. As our chopper descended toward the scruffy hilltop that was once Mary Ann, I gasped. What those sappers did in little more than an hour went well beyond fear.
About five football fields long, and less than 100 yards wide, Mary Ann straddled a bulldozed 250-foot high ridge line fifty miles inland from the rice-paddy lowlands of Chu Lai. A stronghold for units of Americal’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade, it was the most remote of Americal’s two dozen fire bases and landing zones. Four artillery guns on Mary Ann supported US and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) patrols intercepting enemy traffic from the Ho Chi Minh Trail winding through the craggy mountain border with Laos. The usual daytime landscape views from Mary Ann were tourist-brochure caliber. On this morning, we saw a smoldering disaster area, revealed through dust swirled up from a fleet of medevac helicopters ferrying dead and wounded. Leading our detail off the chopper, the straight-laced, shake-and-bake second lieutenant in charge gagged at the odious smell of gunpowder lingering in the morning mountain mist. “Is this what Auschwitz was like?” he asked no one in particular.
Thick black body bags were stacked outside the GI sleeping quarters. Some of them were knifed to death in their beds. Once deep inside the base, the sappers blew up the centrally located command post and communications bunkers. These were pockmarked from friendly fire—US air support—that was called in virtually on top of the defenders. In the bush outside the base perimeter there were drag marks and blood trails where wounded or dead sappers were retrieved by their comrades. Corpses of fifteen sappers were left behind.
The return flight to Chu Lai that afternoon was pregnant with silence. Everyone tried to process what they had witnessed. 1971 was a benign time in the war. There had been no major operations near Mary Ann for the previous six months, when NVA regulars in the area were essentially routed. The base was being turned over to the ARVN as part of a grand, get-the-US-the-hell-out-of-Vietnam strategy called “Vietnamization.” Troop levels were already steadily diminishing. Complete US withdrawal from the war was only a matter of time. At our sprawling headquarters, even sporadic rocket attacks on the Chu Lai airstrip had waned. Until Mary Ann, I spent more time sunning myself on top of our air raid bunker than I did cowering in fear beneath it. We all believed the area was pacified.
But it was clear that Mary Ann was a tragic consequence of the ennui which had taken hold in those waning months of the war. At Mary Ann, soldiers were high on drugs, security was lax, defensive protocols ignored, officers inattentive. Things weren’t that different at Chu Lai. I got stoned in the barracks, or tipsy at the Hog Farm bar, nearly every night. But in the rear, the risks were nowhere near as high as at Mary Ann. Mary Ann—and bases like it—was where the war got fought.
There’s another side to the battle of Mary Ann, one of medal-winning valor and heroism. 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 the Viet Cong guerillas who remained traipsing around in the surrounding bush. The attack on Mary Ann may very well have been retribution for those enemy defeats.
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 Army unit of the time. Formed in 1967 as the resurrection of a proud WWII outfit 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 Americal’s 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.”
Movie director Brian DePalma put an Americal shoulder patch on characters played by Kevin J. Fox and others in “Casualties of War,” a film 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, he never served a day in jail.
A horrid bookend with My Lai, the sneak attack at Mary Ann was an unruly wake up call for me and every other soldier in Vietnam, as well as to the higher up brass, and our country as a whole. Six high ranking field-grade and flag officers—up to and including the division’s Commanding General—were relieved of duty and officially reprimanded following the shit-storm of March 28, 1971. It hastened the pullout of US troops and sounded the sorry endnote for the Americal Division, sent home and disbanded eight months later. The battle at Mary Ann was the deadliest assault of the Vietnam War on a single US firebase, and the war’s last major attack on a US installation. To my knowledge, the Army’s after action photos were never released.
Back in the office at Chu Lai, after I stowed my steel pot helmet and turned in my film, I ripped open my letter to Natalie and added a single line without mentioning Mary Ann. “You can count on me to do everything within my power to ‘ghost’ and remain safe the rest of my time here,” I scribbled hastily.
In ‘Nam, it was always better to lie.