Affidavit -- After Action Review (AAR) 25-29 November 1970 Prairie Fire Mission
I, MSG Edward C. Ziobron, certify that the following statement is true and correct, under the penalty of perjury to the laws of the State of West Virginia.
That I am now and at all times herein mentioned have been a citizen of the United States and resident of the State of West Virginia, over the age of twenty-one years, and competent to be a witness herein:
This is my personal After Action Review and recollections of the actions of our Hatchet Platoon “Prairie Fire” operation into Laos over 25 November 1970 to 29 November 1970. At that time I was serving as a Special Forces Sergeant and the platoon reconnaissance element team leader with Hatchet Company A, SOA(CCC), MACVSOG, 5th SFG(A), 1st SF, Kontum, Republic of Vietnam.
I had just returned from a cross-border operation on the 24th of November, 1970, to SOA(CCC), Kontum, when notified of an upcoming Hatchet Force platoon sized operation into Laos. I volunteered to go on this mission with my reconnaissance element.
On prepping my reconnaissance element and assisting in preparations with the rest of the platoon, we departed SOA(CCC) at Kontum for the launch site at Dak To, RVN, for “cross the fence” operations into Laos on the 25th of November 1970.
Our Hatchet Force platoon consisted of the following American Army Special Forces personnel; LT Goldstein (his first operation with MACV-SOG, SFC John R. Bean (fresh to MACV-SOG from in-country RVN SF operations), SGT Clyde C. Conkin, Medic SGT Chester C. Zaborowski, and me as Reconnaissance Element NCO. The remainder of our platoon consisted of 36 paramilitary indigenous Montagnard Special Commando Unit (SCU) personnel. We were to insert into Laos approximately 20 kilometers Northwest from Dak To for the purpose of POW repatriation, anti-aircraft site eradication, trail interdiction and enemy materiel destruction. The target area was remote and located in Attepeu Province, Laos. The sky was clear and the temperature was approximately 90°F.
At approximately 1300 hours, 26 November 1970 our platoon was inserted into the target mission area. At approximately 1330 hours, after the platoon traversed the landing zone(LZ) and associated surroundings, I led my SCU Recon element of five Montagnards to ascertain any enemy elements and strength in immediate area. I moved my recon team forward approximately 600 meters to the proximity of a burial ground. The terrain was extremely steep and densely foliated. I then received a communication via radio ordering my return to the main force for a situation report.
On return to the main element and assessing the main force leadership situation as non- critical, American leader (1-0) LT Goldstein was suffering from heat prostration, I expeditiously moved to rejoin my Recon element, a distance of approximately 700 meters and over a rise in elevation from 2000 feet to 2600 feet. As I was moving back to rejoin my reconnaissance element, my recon element engaged a numerically superior North Vietnamese (NVA) Regular force. A furious confrontation ensued. I and my team engaged the enemy force for approximately ten minutes before I could safely use my radio to contact Covey for TAC Air. I then called in and directed TAC Air to repel the NVA ground assault on our position. The main force was unable to fully reach our recon element's position in a timely manner due to the distance to be traveled by the size of the force and the condition of the commanding officer, LT Goldstein. I made repeated requests to the main Hatchet Force for assistance to engage the enemy force, but they were unable to timely deploy.
Having exhausted TAC air support I proceeded to engage the enemy force with my Montagnard SCU recon element of five personnel using small arms. I led my five Montagnard SCU in a uphill frontal charge on the well entrenched North Vietnamese positions along an approximately 50 meter front, and up a 45 degree incline. While engaged in the attack, I received my first wounds of this mission by being hit by NVA B40 Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) fragments in the face, left arm, and left leg.
Throwing hand grenades and discharging automatic weapons while assaulting the enemy positions, I charged forward leading my recon element's advance and forced the NVA to retreat back up the slope of the ridge to more bunker and trench positions along the ridge-top. So hasty was the enemy retreat, they left their dead (Approximately 8-10 personnel) where they fell.
I had led my Recon element approximately 400-500 meters up a very steep slope in a furious sustained engagement with the enemy force. They were exhausted, and the main platoon element was continuing to struggle at our heels with the situation of LT Goldstein. Upon clearing the enemy positions and assessing my element’s condition, I ordered my element to secure and hold the enemy fighting positions. I knew there was little time to spare before we could expect an enemy counter attack on us and our struggling main element. I knew the NVA could not be allowed to regroup and attack. I slung my CAR-15 and took an M-60 machine gun from one of my SCU and carried on the uphill assault. I charged at the enemy, who initially fired at my charge with small arms and RPGs, then the enemy started to break and run in confusion from their ridge-top position to which they had initially retreated. After overrunning their first position, I went to fire the M-60 at other enemy positions on the ridge-top. The M-60 did not fire on the first or subsequent attempts. Dropping it, I un-slung my CAR-15 to engage the falling back enemy, who were now beginning to increase fire on my position again. It appeared that there were around 30 enemy personnel now on the ridge-top. Using my carbine and white phosphorus grenades I was able to dislodge the confused but numerically superior enemy force who had not managed to fully regroup. With the main platoon starting to move closer up the slope and in range to engage, the enemy finally retreated over the ridge and down the opposing slope, most of the surviving enemy appeared wounded, or assisting wounded, but continued to fire sporadically at my position. We found approximately six enemy dead on the ridge-top when the main element was finally able to catch up and join in my assault.
As the NVA fire died down I ordered my recon element up and ahead of the main platoon to assist me in securing the freshly abandoned enemy positions on the ridge-top. It was about that time that I discovered I had been wounded again by enemy grenade fragments in my thigh. Shortly after, around 1745 hours, the main force arrived on the ridge-top. LT Goldstein ordered first and third squads to sweep the ridge top while second squad acted as security assessing the enemy dead and wounded and counting captured arms and material. I gave a situation report to LT Goldstein and the other NCOs. I believe the enemy body count was around 20 to 30, numerous captured automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and one 12.7mm heavy anti-aircraft machine gun, with thousands of rounds of ammunition, some RPG rounds, and a couple hundred pounds of rice.
SGT Zaborowski identified and treated my wounds. LT Goldstein informed me that for my actions in breaking out from the burial ground at the lower mountain, gaining control of the trench and bunker line, and subsequent charge of the enemy bunkers, he (LT Goldstein) would be recommending me for the Silver Star. At approximately 1845 hours the entire platoon, with the exception of the recon element and I, secured the upper portion of the ridge top for a Remain Over Night (RON) position.
At approximately 0615 the following morning, 27 November 1970, the entire platoon was up and standing to, having eaten breakfast, and was ready to move out. The platoon's movement would be in single file with first squad leading down the ridge line in a northerly direction on the east side of the ridge. The second squad, followed by the third squad, was next, with the US Special Forces personnel interspersed throughout the column. The recon element and I were to follow the platoon at a distance of approximately 100 meters during the day's movement for rear security and to rest the recon element. This day was to be principally a movement day to areas of mission importance. The platoon moved along the ridge top for most of the day, stopping around 1300 hours for a meal and rest break. At this point in time, SGT Zaborowski notified me that the platoon would have to stop periodically because of the continued poor condition of LT Goldstein. Upon continuing the march, the platoon and recon element began a descent onto a connecting ridge which ran in a northeasterly direction. After traveling on this ridge for approximately 300 meters, LT Goldstein staggered and fell, deeply slicing his hand on bamboo. SGT Zaborowski attended the wound, but the depth and severity of it could not be fully field treated. A halt was called in the day's movement. A perimeter was hastily set up and a situation report was held with all US personnel present.
SFC Bean had notified all that he had taken command of the platoon and mission because of the poor physical state of LT Goldstein. A listening post was set up approximately 100 meters from the main force. At this point in time, I was directed to sweep the entire outer perimeter with my recon element and the third squad. SGT Conkin was to take four men and move to the listening post which was on an adjacent hill-top and remain there for the night. SFC Bean at this point (prior to dispersal from the situation report) informed SGTs Conkin, Zaborowski, and myself, that he would have LT Goldstein medically evacuated in the morning and that LT Goldstein was no longer fit for command. All SGTs concurred with his decision. At this point I requested that all M-72 Light Anti-tank Weapons (LAWs) be placed in the center of the main force perimeter, with the particular concern being the security of the two occupied hills from possible enemy direct and indirect fire from the ridge-top to the west. The request was granted and I immediately took charge of all the M-72 LAWs and placed them in the security and vicinity of my fighting hole and recon element. The outpost and the entire platoon settled in for the night.
At approximately 0600 hours on the morning of 28 November 1970, SFC Bean ordered the return of the night listening post and at around 0615 hours instructed me to use my recon element and the first squad to prepare and secure a LZ within the platoon's perimeter for the "dust off” of LT Goldstein. As had been discussed the previous evening, immediately upon completion of the medevac, the platoon was to move to the north for approximately 500 meters, then turn due east and follow an active stream to its confluence with a river at which point the location of a suspected POW camp was to be explored. Myself and Im Nei Ksor (SCU first platoon Captain, indigenous Montagnard personnel leader (0-1), and interpreter) were to lead the recon element by a distance of approximately 50 meters, which in turn was to precede the first, second, and third squads by 50 meters.
As I had prepared the LZ with the appropriate orange panel marker and was moving back to my night fighting hole, two heavy machine guns (Anti-Aircraft(AA) 12.7mm Soviet) opened fire on the platoon's position at a distance of approximately 300 meters. The fire came from the high ridge to the west, which LT Goldstein had passed on the previous day's march. I ordered, through my interpreter, for the recon element to bring suppressing fire to bear on the two positions so I could get to my fighting hole where the secure voice radio and the M-72 LAWs were located. Green tracer rounds from the heavy machine guns were pouring into the platoon's perimeter at a very high volume and had seriously wounded two of the SCU. SGT Zaborowski and I immediate moved to get the two SCU to safety under fire. After doing so, I continued toward the radio and LAW location, all the while encouraging the SCU to increase their fire at the flashes of the enemy guns on the ridge but to maintain cover. On reaching my fighting hole, with my interpreter, I quickly readied three LAWs for firing and at the next sighting of a muzzle flash from the ridge, stood up drawing fire from the heavy enemy machine guns, and fired a LAW at one of the guns. As soon as the first rocket was on its way, I grabbed and fired a second, then the third rocket, with all three rounds finding their target. The secondary explosions at the first gun battery site brought a cheer from the SCU but also a renewed intensity of fire from the remaining heavy machine gun. I took immediate cover and directed more suppressing fire from the SCU as the intensity of fire from the AA gun battery was seemingly concentrated on my position. Not desiring to be blown up with the remaining LAWs, I once again stood up under the heavy fire and quickly guided a salvo of three more rockets at the remaining heavy guns on the ridge. The explosions at the enemy emplacements brought a temporary end to the enemy fire and I was finally able to make contact with LEGHORN (formerly a classified radio relay/intercept site in Laos 48PYB604356) for a situation report on the "dust off”(evacuation) for LT Goldstein and to arrange for accompanying air support.
I was not thoroughly convinced that the enemy no longer posed a threat from the surrounding ridges and requested that available gunships and air support be advised of hostile ground. I further advised LEGHORN of the fire fight with the enemy positions on the western ridge and the two seriously wounded SCU; LEGHORN acknowledged and confirmed that the "dust off” was on its way and not more than five minutes out.
The "dust off” and accompanying compliment of helicopter gunships and A1 Skyraiders soon were all around the platoon's position and the extraction of LT Goldstein and the two wounded SCU was effected without initial incident until the helicopter had swung around to the east and immediately took rocket and heavy AA machine gun fire from a ridge to the platoon's east and directly in the path of the helicopter. The platoon also took fire from this general direction and I once again exposed myself to the fire and gave the "Covey" Forward Air Controlled (FAC) the azimuth to the observed coordinates of the fire and flashes. The gunships and Skyraiders immediately began to work over the ridge and any questionable areas that I directed as suspect of being hostile. I assisted in getting LT Goldstein to the helicopter, and the helicopter brought us additional ammunition. The "dust off” helicopter soon cleared the valley area and was gone, no further enemy fire was evidenced at this time, which was approximately 1015 hours.
Shortly thereafter, SFC Bean, SGT Conkin, SGT Zaborowski, and I, conferred briefly. It was determined that the original plan of march to the suspected POW camp was to remain in effect. I then informed the other three SGTs that although I was not the ranking NCO, I would now assume "in-charge" status of the mission as the situation seemed to be critical from a personnel and mission completion standpoint. SFC Bean was new to Studies and Observations Group operations and was not tactically, technically, physically or mentally ready for this mission. By the same neither was LT Goldstein. SFC Bean’s hesitation in the first engagement was observed and telling of this fact. I am not sure that SFC Bean even fired his weapon in the first engagement. I contacted LEGHORN with this new information on command and at approximately 1030 hours I led the way with my interpreter down the saddle of the hilltop. The general direction of travel was to the north to a stream of perhaps 10 meters in width.
My interpreter and I led the way across the stream, securing the crossing with the recon element and then changing direction and moving in an easterly direction. After traveling a distance of approximately 2000 meters along the bank of the stream, the recon element and I came to the top of a grassy knoll overlooking the junction of the stream and a larger stream/river. My interpreter and I witnessed five NVA regulars move to the north up the side of the river before disappearing past a heavily forested rock outcropping at a bend in the river. I immediately moved forward leading the recon element to stalk the enemy soldiers. Upon reaching the river's edge I halted the movement of the element after observing hundreds of sandal imprints in the surface of the sand bar and very thick cover on the steep terrain at the far side of the river. I called for the rest of platoon to move forward in line to the recon element's position with one squad deployed to the rear for security.
When all sections were in place, I conferred with SGT Conkin and dispatched four men to the far side of the river to secure a high point for covering the eventual crossing by the platoon. My interpreter and I slowly moved north along the river's edge into the heavy foliage in the direction the enemy soldiers had taken. After traveling a distance of not more than 25 meters from the secured position along the river's edge, my interpreter, Im Nei Ksor, found an apparently abandoned camp. Before moving into the camp, I had SGTs Conkin and Zaborowski take the first and second squads to the far side of the camp to secure all sides.
Once this was accomplished, I led the recon element for a sweep of the camp. I alone was the only one to enter the camp. Four derelict wooden structures resembling raised sleeping quarters or barracks, six small cage like devices (large enough to painfully accommodate a man) and two cook fire locations were discovered. Numerous fighting holes, trenches, and a large podium like structure were also noted. I searched the entire camp area for any sign of life. This was the approximate vicinity of the POW compound and I made a diligent effort to determine its authenticity. The continued search however, turned up no information or clue other than remnants of what appeared to be uniform material not unlike that worn by US Army helicopter pilots. I secured these items for possible further identification by intelligence sources in my ruck sack and then called a brief situation report meeting with the other US NCOs and my interpreter. It was decided that the enemy soldiers were possibly members of a larger force as a number of base camps were reported to be in this general area (especially from the amount of AA weapons cited here by intel). The time was approximately 1500 hours, a break halt was called to further evaluate the situation.
A heated and lengthy discussion ensued at this point between all the NCOs as to whether the mission should be continued or an immediate extraction be initiated. I prevailed upon the compliment that the mission was certainly not completed, and although the area had become extremely "hot”, sending in another platoon or team at a later date would allow more "build up" and additional casualties would result. The NCOs all finally concurred that 24 hours more should be all that was necessary to complete the planned portion of the operation.
At approximately 1530 hours, I led the recon element in fording the river and met with the four SCU originally sent to secure the slope on the far side of the river. When the recon element was dispersed further up the slope, the remainder of the platoon forded the river and began to ascend the steep slope. At approximately 1600 hours, I called a rest halt because of the severity of the climb. Im Nei Ksor discovered a well used trail at least two meters wide and cut into the side of the slope. With Im Nei Ksor watching the up trail and I looking down the trail to the east-southeast, I caught the movement of six NVA regulars, four carrying AK-47s and two carrying B-40 rockets and launchers, coming up the trail in our direction.
Using hand signals, I immediately informed my interpreter, Im Nei Ksor, of the enemy soldier's movement. We both took up firing positions. I opened fire emptying a magazine, killing the first four soldiers, and as soon as I called "clear" and dumped my magazine, Im Nei Ksor opened fire, killing the two remaining NVA regulars. I motioned for Im Nei Ksor to check the bodies and ordered the recon element to his position to secure the trail below the bodies.
I then called via radio for the rest of the mission element to gain the trail location and secure the area in force. As this was being initiated, Nhet, one of the recon element members, came running to Im Nei Ksor and I with information of a trail branching off of the main trail, going up the ridge and not more than 25 meters from the NVA bodies. Upon further information exchange, Nhet conveyed to me that a large raised long house was clearly observable from the trail junction.
I met with SGTs Bean, Conkin, and Zaborowski, and the consensus was to have first and second squad move on line towards the long house while the third squad watched the main trail and back slope. The recon element, led by my interpreter and I, would advance towards the long house from the east beyond the junction. After searching the enemy bodies for documents and discovering none, then taking their weapons and ammunition, and dispensing it amongst the recon element and platoon, our complement moved out to secure the long house. My recon element and platoon converged on the long house simultaneously with no sign of human life immediately evident. A cook fire was smoldering to the west of the structure, evidence that perhaps some NVA soldiers had made a hasty withdrawal from the area when the six soldiers were ambushed on the main trail. Searching the entire area around and under the long house produced no presence of booby traps or other such defensive devices. Myself and SGT Conkin then inspected the interior of the structure and found that it was full of loose dried rice. The building itself was approximately 10 meters long, 3.5 meters wide, and4.5 meters high. It appeared to function as a major supply stop for this NVA area of operation.
Im Nei Ksor suggested a further search through the contents of the rice for arms, ammunition, and associated materiel. A more thorough search uncovered not only numerous jungle type hammocks with Chinese markings on them, but approximately 100 RPG-2 rounds, 5000 12.7mm rounds, 50 122mm rockets, 6 RPD squad light machine guns and as much as 10,000 rounds of 7.62mm x39 ammunition. Uncovered by our diligent searching underneath the structure were transport bicycles with racks for carrying all forms of equipment and materiel.
I quickly composed a message for the secure voice radio for transmission to LEGHORN reporting the cache of rice and materiel and to request a recommended action to be taken with the find. Moments later, a message was received ordering the destruction of all that was found, and retire to an Landing Zone (LZ) of my choosing for extraction at the earliest possible moment on 29 November 1970. The area was now judged to be much too "hot" for a wider strength force, and considering all that had transpired to this point no extraction would be attempted on 28 November 1970 because of the late hour. I affirmed the message immediately and took action to avail the NCOs of Command and Control’s decision to destroy the contents of the long house and secure an LZ for extraction.
At approximately 1650 hours, SGT Conkin and I gathered available blocks of C-4 explosives and buried them in the center of the rice and ammunition with a thermite grenade in the center. Upon taking cover outside in the trees surrounding the long house, and the platoon well away and under cover, I initiated the enemy supply destruction. Within seconds the structure was billowing flames and smoke. The entire building exploded a minute later with secondary explosions sending shrapnel, rounds, and debris in every direction. As soon as the errant explosions began to die down, I asked SF Medic, SGT Zaborowski, to ascertain whether any wounds had been incurred by either the SCU or the Americans. SGT Zaborowski reported no such injury or wounds had been sustained and all troops were ready to move out.
After conferring with the other SGTs, I decided that the closest site for an extraction LZ was the top of the ridge the platoon was now only 500 meters away from. Since darkness was fast approaching and every ear within miles was now aware of our presence, an expeditious but cautious move was vital for the platoon's survival and safety. I ordered the platoon and recon element to initiate an on-line formation with two meter interval to move up the ridge slope in strength, not wishing to repeat the near disaster of the uphill assault on day one of the mission. I availed SGT Conkin that I would take the recon element and move to the right flank of the platoon, and stay above the west-east heading trail. When the recon element was in place, I informed SGT Conkin via radio to coordinate a movement in unison.
Approximately five minutes later, as Im Nei Ksor and I were reaching the end of the line where the recon element was deployed, Hlep, one of the recon element SCU yelled out "VC!" and opened fire with his AK-47 assault rifle. Approximately 35 to 45 NVA Regulars were advancing and firing on the recon element, two NVA falling dead from the marksmanship of Hlep, and at that very instant Hlep himself and Nhet fell mortally wounded. I immediately turned in attack, opening fire and killing several NVA and wounding several more. More NVA fell as the recon element and main platoon brought their fire to bear on the charging NVA. I charged forward towards a cluster of enemy soldiers throwing two fragmentation grenades and firing my CAR-15 into their midst.
I continued my attack, throwing more hand grenades and finding multiple targets to engage. I stepped over several more dead NVA regulars and then was hit by a blast from a B-40 rocket which struck a tree directly in front of me. Stunned, but not wounded by the blast, I regained my bearings to find I was approximately 25 meters to the front of the main friendly force and seemingly in the center of the NVA attacking force. I took cover behind a large fallen tree and began to fire my automatic weapon and throw more grenades at ten to fifteen enemy soldiers now coming west along the main trail.
With more NVA soldiers joining the attack every minute, and the fight gaining intensity, I observed that the platoon and recon element had still not moved into a defensive perimeter. I yelled an order to the SCU and to SGT Conkin, whom I could see, to make a hasty perimeter and employ claymores (anti-personnel mines). Almost immediately, I was attacked by two NVA soldiers, having pinpointed my location by hearing my voice. A fierce rolling hand-to-hand fight ensued with me shooting one attacker with my .45 caliber pistol because of the close proximity, and clubbing the other with his own SKS which I had wrestled away from him. Trying once again to get a fix on the situation and attempting to catch my breath, I took two claymore mines from my ruck sack and employed them to my front, beyond a fallen log.
I got back to a defensive position near my ruck sack, and was hit by a tremendous blast from a B-40 RPG and simultaneously hit in the lower right leg by machine gun rounds, rolling me over, down the slope, and across the main trail where I came to rest in a thicket. On regaining my senses and bearings once again, I experienced extraordinary burning pain in my lower right leg and noticed that I had been severely wounded.
There was a large gaping hole in my smoldering canvas legging and boot with blood and tissue everywhere. I was feeling faint and in partial shock from the loss of blood but acutely aware of the dire state of my platoon and recon element. I attempted to regain my footing but could not stand as my achilles tendon was severely lacerated. I subsequently fell to the ground as two more RPG blasts rocked the canopy overhead.
The NVA B-40 RPG gunners were employing the tactic of firing RPGs into the trees above our force’s heads in order to have the shrapnel rain downward into our midst inflicting casualties. Miraculously uninjured by the last two blasts, I yelled out for help to Im Nei Ksor, who was pinned under cover in his position. Observing that no help was coming, as the platoon was taking more and more enemy fire, I managed to get up and hop over logs, fall down, get up, hop again, fall down, and finally using my CAR-15 as a crutch, gained the defensive position of the recon and platoon element.
Making it to Im Nei Ksor’s position and conferring with him, I ascertained that the rest of the platoon was for some reason not moving. I informed Im Nei Ksor that his position was to be held and that I would move back down along the line and send more SCU to his location. While hopping and crawling back to SFC Bean's position, I contacted LEGHORN and reported the situation as "extremely critical" and that support was now an urgent emergency. LEGHORN received the message and I was told to stand by as another team was in an emergency extraction situation.
The time was around 1800 hours and darkness was setting in. A very heated argument took place between me and SFC Bean regarding my order for the platoon to move up and support. SFC Bean stated he would no longer follow orders because the platoon should be "extracted now!" It was obvious that SFC Bean was suffering from Combat Stress. SFC Bean was not making sense as we could not get an extraction at any time we desired, and certainly not at night. SOG extractions in Laos were never initiated at night. SFC Bean had completely lost all tactical awareness and comprehension of our situation. I am also not certain he engaged the enemy in this massive attack. I informed SFC Bean that his inactivity had already contributed to death and injury in his own compliment. SFC Bean still refused to act. I then ordered the SCU to move out but they balked at this order seeming confused and frightened at all that had occurred. I then physically started man-handling the SCU in order to have them engage the enemy as I began to push, shove, and kick them. This tactic seemed to work and the SCU moved forward to deploy against the primary enemy attack.
Crawling and hobbling, pushing the SCU forward, I managed to get back to Im Nei Ksor and the recon element to see another recon element SCU mortally shot through the chest. Im Nei Ksor reported that the NVA had pulled back and there was just sporadic fire in evidence. I used this lull to once again make contact with LEGHORN for support. LEGHORN responded that the FAC "covey" would be along as soon as possible. The “Covey” Forward Air Controller (FAC), served as an eye in the sky and assisted in coordinating air assets with ground elements and providing critical intelligence to the ground forces as to enemy dispositions and movements. As the platoon with Sgt. Conkin and Zaborowski, and a reluctant SFC Bean, consolidated the rest of the platoon in the area of the recon element, I decided that instead of attempting to attain the LZ at the top of the ridge now blocked by the enemy force, that an evasion and withdrawal under air support would be more prudent. Using the defensive post, the rest of the platoon would move back down the ridge, and through a ravine to the river and across to a clear knoll on the opposite ridge considering the vastly numerically superior enemy force seen and heard to be gathering against us at this point.
SGT Zaborowski attempted to fully treat my multiple wounds, not only from bullets and metal fragments, but also injuries to my knees and hands from crawling with the secure voice radio and falling over and over while attempting to bolster the confidence of the SCU and employ them as a fighting force. I refused all aid other than a battle dressing over the severe wound to my right leg, which was still bleeding profusely and would continue to do so. I feared I would be incapacitated and reduced in effectiveness by the numbing power of Demerol or Morphine that SGT Zaborowski was insisting on treating my severe pain with. SGT Zaborowski insists he stuck me with a syrette of morphine, but I do not recall that, and was not aware of it.
Im Nei Ksor and I with approximately ten SCU moved to the fallen log defensive position where I had positioned three Claymore mines. I ordered the remainder of the force to consolidate for withdrawal, engage and repel any attacking enemy, then evade down the ravine as soon as air support arrived. Moments after setting out three more Claymores, an attack of immense proportions erupted with barrages of RPG explosions hitting all around and above our log defensive position.
I was once again knocked backward to the ground and all in our forward defensive position were wounded by RPG rocket fragments. I again regained to my knees and positioned myself only to witness countless muzzle flashes to my front. I began returning fire with an M-79 grenade launcher taken from a dead SCU.
Firing at least ten M-79 grenade rounds into the midst of attacking NVA, I counted dozens of enemy soldiers falling to the ground, killed or wounded. I then heard the scream "Gas!" and immediately donned my protective mask as the first burning sensations CS Gas were felt around my throat, armpits, chest and groin. I saw ten to twelve NVA suddenly rushing our position from my left. Donning my protective mask, I then returned to directing fire from the SCU and I detonated two of the Claymore mines aimed in the enemy’s direction, immediately 20 to 30 more enemy appeared to my front right within 15 meters of our defensive position. I detonated two more Claymores mines, taking down the charging NVA.
Small arms fire suddenly decreased but another barrage of RPG rounds occurred, throwing me out of my position. Unable to move because of the blast, and excruciating back and leg pain, Im Nei Ksor came to my aid, and almost immediately after going over the log defensive position wall, was hit by a B-40 rocket and mortally wounded.
Seeing this, I was incensed by the wounding of my comrade. I struggled up and went to Im Nei Ksor's aid, drawing and firing my .45 caliber pistol en-route. I picked up Im Nei Ksor and pulled him back into the defensive position to tend his wounds and ordered more fire from both our position and the platoon group.
Just at that moment, "Covey" came on the radio stating "Cream Puffs (A1fixed wing, prop driven, Skyraiders) were standing by with tonight's menu." I informed Covey of the dire situation and requested a "dust off." Covey replied "impossible to the dust off request”, but stated that "a withdrawal to a defensible night position should commence as soon as possible.” Covey further communicated that the evasion would be covered by the Skyraiders and a AC-130 “Spectre” gunship was standing by and ready to "spend the night" at Sundance 's disposal. “Sundance” was my radio call sign and my “nom de guerre”. I reported that the withdrawal would commence at once and ordered SGT Zaborowski to take all the seriously wounded SCU out first with SFC Bean's assistance, and ordered Sgt. Conkin to begin the withdrawal but to maintain order and security.
I radioed the azimuth from the defensive position to the greatest concentration of enemy troops to the FAC “Covey” after marking our position with him on a fly over. “Rolling over and coming in hot boys, get your heads down!” was the next communiqué heard on the secure voice radio before four rockets screamed in and exploded on the NVA positions.
Unexpectedly, a large group of NVA appeared to the front of my defensive position where I was with my wounded interpreter. The NVA were attempting to close the distance between themselves and our defensive position to make air support difficult, if not impossible, short of calling fire on our own position. I fired a remaining Claymore, taking a number of them down, but more kept coming. As the first enemy made it to my position, I pulled him down to the ground with me, ripping off his protective mask and beating him. The second NVA, firing his SKS to reach my position, was met with a blast of 40mm buckshot canister from the M-79 I had picked up. Rising up in great pain, two more NVA attacked my position, drawing my .45 pistol I shot them both, and this assault was broken.
In a very brief respite to the assault on my position, Covey called for any correction to the enemy's position, and as none was necessary, I requested that the air strikes continue, with greater intensity on the same target area. Covey acknowledged the request and the Skyraiders continued pounding the enemy's positions. Sgt. Conkin called me on the radio that all friendlies had withdrawn to the ravine and the river. Small arms fire and B40 rockets now increased with intensity and I realizing my position was no longer defensible. I ordered all the remaining SCU to go to the ravine as quickly as possible, and as best they could. I called for ordnance to be dropped on my location in 30 seconds. Covey acknowledged but stated that I must be willing to accept full responsibility for this action. I acknowledged the act as my own and Covey affirmed same. With that, I picked up the secure voice radio, in my rucksack, and draped the dying Im Nei Ksor on my back with the help of one remaining SCU. We all left the log defensive position.
We were moving very slow from my multiple wounds and injuries. Little more than 10 seconds after reaching the ravine, two large bomb type explosions rocked and propelled me, with Im Nei Ksor on my back, and the two SCU down the gorge into the undergrowth. I was again dazed with searing pain from my leg and back. The SCU screamed and feared that the ordnance was being dropped too closely. This was true, but it was also holding back the NVA so close on our heels from rolling up the rear of our element and platoon. I did, however, call for a lifting of the target/impact area by 100 meters. Covey acknowledged and the Skyraiders responded and pounded the battle area with greater intensity using guns, rockets, bombs, and cluster bomb units (CBUs). After 10 minutes of continuous pounding, I was grudgingly advised that the Skyraiders were low on fuel and out or ordnance. Covey advised that the AC-130 “Spectre” was "standing by." I advised him that despite the serious wounds and fatigue of my men (in particular, me and Im Nei Ksor) that a river crossing was now underway with SGT Conkin already holding the far side of the river with better than 50% of the SCU providing security and preparing a night perimeter. I reported that I would again contact Covey for a situation report once the entire element reached the far side of the river.
After we had remained immersed in the water by the far bank for hours, I ordered the entire platoon and remaining recon element to move deep into the wooded area which seemed to promise the greatest amount of cover and security and to form a fighting circle with the most severely wounded in the center. I had managed with great difficulty to traverse, and even sometimes swimming, the river with Im Nei Ksor draped over my back. SGTs Conkin, Zaborowski, and Bean are also to be commended for their extreme efforts assisting the wounded and frightened SCU across the river. In crossing the river, SFC Bean disappeared as he was washed downstream in the very swift moving water. I had communicated to Covey that finally the unit was as secure as they could be, considering our dire situation with water to their waists. I requested Covey fix our location by identifying the color of strobe which I was now employing, "Orange" came the reply which was the appropriate identification, and Covey stated that “Spectre” wanted to come on the air to speak with “Sundance.”
Over the secure voice radio Spectre informed me that his AC-130 aircraft gunship had the capability to stay on station all night and had ordnance enough for the period with 30,000 rounds and flares. He affirmed to me not to be too concerned for they "would make life miserable for Victor Charles." Spectre also stated that flashing the unit's strobe with attached filter from the ground would not be detected by the enemy and that flashing the strobe for 15 seconds every hour at the same interval would continue to mark the position of the platoon and afford 360 degree security to the unit.
No sooner than I had started flashing my strobe to have the AC-130 gunship mark our position, then numerous excited voices were heard coming from across the slow moving river. Hundreds of NVA soldiers with lanterns and flares were seen up and down the river for over 200 meters, searching for the spot where our platoon had forded. All in the wooded perimeter came on alert as I called the Spectre gunship to relate the enemy movement towards the platoon as potentially critical, and provide Spectre with the azimuth and approximately distance to the targets. A "Roger, engaging on the next pass, keep down, enjoy the fireworks," came over the secure radio. The sky suddenly erupted with flares, 20mm, and 7.62mm fire raining down with tracers on the NVA searching for our platoon on the far side of the river. Rounds could be heard smashing through the trees followed by human cries.
As I attempted to acknowledge the strike, the radio went dead. Subsequent attempts to get the radio to work proved fruitless so I shut down the set until there was enough daylight to work on it with the hopes that the last available battery, which had been immersed in the river during the crossing, might dry by morning. After conferring with SGTs Conkin and Zaborowski, I decided that if the enemy attempted to cross the river, I would use Morse code to signal the gunship for assistance.
Sgt. Zaborowski once again attempted to tend to my wounds, but I only allowed a dressing change on my severely damaged leg. During the night, SFC Bean reappeared in our defensive position, wandering in minus his weapon and all equipment. SFC Bean, with only the clothes on his back, physically unharmed, was acting completely incoherent and was apparently suffering under extreme combat stress.
The time was now approximately 2230 hours. I repeatedly crawled around the entire perimeter for the duration of the night, despite experiencing excruciating pain and further fatigue, to bolster the spirits of my badly mauled SCU and fellow Special Forces warriors. At approximately 0430 hours, SGT Zaborowski notified me that my interpreter, Im Nei Ksor, had died from his wounds.
At approximately 0530 hours, 29 November, 1970, after a conference between SGTs Conkin, Zaborowski and myself, SFC Bean was still not coherent or responsive to conversation, it was determined that the low, wet, wooded area near the river, which was our overnight position, was in fact no longer defensible because of the coming daylight and the detected movement of NVA Regulars still searching for our platoon on the far side of the river. I ordered the platoon to abandon the overnight defensive position and move on line and up a slight grass covered slope, the final destination being the LZ on a wooded hilltop overlooking the river. The selected hilltop provided good visibility over 360 degrees of the surrounding terrain, which had been previously noted from maps and aerial reconnaissance. Crawling and carrying my secure voice radio, on point, at the middle of the line, an aircraft was heard overhead at approximately 0615 hours. The radio which was seemingly inoperative after having been hit by a bullet and immersed in the river, suddenly came alive with "Spectre to Sundance , Spectre to Sundance, do you copy? Come in Sundance." I cleared the air twice by depressing the handset and responded with, "Sundance to Spectre, loud and clear." After what seemed like an eternity, Spectre responded "Goddamn good to hear you Sundance, what is your situation?" I responded to the question relating that the radio had gone down in the night and that using the strobe, even with filters, was giving the NVA a fix on our position. Not wishing to compromise ourselves further because we were running critically low on ammunition and had 90% casualties and 4 KIA. I informed the AC-130 gunship commander that the unit was attempting to extricate itself from the entanglement of the NVA at the river and were in fact moving up a slope to a hilltop at that very moment and that the situation was extremely critical. The gunship commander informed me that all available support was preparing to launch for an extraction of the platoon at the next possible break in the weather.
The gunship commander requested that our unit move as expeditiously as possible to the hilltop and prepare for defense of the position so that the platoon's position could be fixed to enable the AC-130 Spectre to bring its guns to bear as soon as possible and as needed. I agreed with the request and closed off communication until such time as the hilltop was reached by our unit.
The platoon started moving cautiously up the slope through a heavy fog with visibility of only around 10 feet. At approximately 0715 hours, SGT Zaborowski spoke in a sharp whisper, "Bean get back here, you're not armed!" I called a halt to the platoon's movement and heard SFC Bean reply, "Leave me alone, leave me alone!" I asked SGT Zaborowski if he could get to Bean and bring him back, but SGT Zaborowski was assisting multiple wounded SCU and was unable to do so. SGT Conkin responded that he would try to get SFC Bean back to the line but I ordered SGT Conkin to remain on the left end of the line for leadership and security of the SCU at that location. SGT Zaborowski informed me that SFC Bean could no longer be seen or heard. Seconds after this statement an enemy RPD machine gun opened up on the right flank, approximately 75 meters away. I realized fully the report was from an NVA weapon and ordered all SCU to take cover and hold fire because a friendly was in fire jeopardy.
After the NVA fired approximately 25 to 30 rounds, all became sickeningly quiet. I ordered the platoon to move out again, not wishing to be caught in the open by the NVA who were now doggedly moving in on the platoon as was determined from enemy shouting and light beacons in the fog. Approximately five minutes after I gave the movement order, a SCU personnel came running to me and stated that he seen SFC Bean dead with most of his face and head missing. I ordered the SCU to take another SCU with him, and stay with the body until I came to get them. Montagnards are very superstitious regarding dead bodies, but they followed my orders without hesitation. The platoon continued to move towards the hilltop and at approximately 0745 hours attained that location. The hilltop was dotted with approximately 25 fighting holes and the platoon immediately occupied them as I notified the AC-130 Spectre gunship that the platoon was now in position and when the aircraft was on our level I would signal for a pinpoint location. Once this was accomplished the aircraft commander wanted a situation report. I responded that out of the original 5 Americans, one had been evacuated the day before and another was now KIA, and that ammunition was running critically low. Further, in addition to my wounds, SGTs Conkin and Zaborowski were also wounded. The gunship commander requested that if at all possible, we be immediately recovered since fast mover, fixed wing air support, and helicopter gunships, were now en route to our location. At that moment, our hilltop position took immediate, heavy machine gun fire, small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades from three locations. The fire was coming from the ridge we had left the previous afternoon (on which we had had the two hour long battle); the slope of the hill and wooded area we had just ascended; and from a wooded area to our rear and eastward.
I ordered the SCU to fire only on exposed NVA soldiers, and sure targets of opportunity in order to conserve ammunition. I placed SGT Conkin in command and informed SGT Zaborowski that I was going out to retrieve SFC Bean as the fog was hiding the platoon, and most of the hill. This would be the best and safest movement to exact the retrieval of SFC Bean’s body. SGT Zaborowski did his best to dissuade me from taking such a risk because of the severity of my wounds and worsening condition, but I thanked SGT Zaborowski for his concern and ordered him back to care for my wounded SCU personnel.
I crawled out of my fighting hole, my leg wound still bleeding and unable to walk, and leaving the secure voice radio with SGT Conkin. I worked my way down the hill in the fog and reached the position where SFC Bean lay with the guarding SCU. I then ordered the frightened and superstitious SCU, who were guarding his body, to bring SFC Bean back up the hill to the platoon's position while I provided security. Shouting enemy soldiers were closing in on our retreat back up the hill. Upon hobbling and crawling back to the platoon's position once again, I regained the secure voice radio from SGT Conkin, popped a smoke grenade, and requested over the radio, "color of smoke, Spectre?" "Purple," came the reply from Spectre. I affirmed this answer and Spectre stated he was "preparing to fire" and that the platoon was to keep its head down. The gunship made numerous passes and soon informed me that he was low on fuel but would wait as long as possible before returning to base in hopes that the air support would soon arrive. When the gunship ceased firing the NVA soldiers once again began pounding the unit's position in earnest. The platoon responded with limited but accurate small arms fire inflicting further casualties on the enemy. I saw numerous enemy cut down by my men. I joined in by throwing several hand grenades down the slope in the vicinity of the greatest concentration of enemy soldiers. This wall of hand grenades, as I ordered a "mad minute" of sustained small arms fire, broke the back of the NVA attack.
At approximately 0815 hours, four F-4 Phantoms and a flight of A1 Skyraiders appeared and requested targets to suppress. Upon hearing this, I ordered the platoon to hold fire with their few remaining rounds, and to get deep into individual fighting holes. I guided the air support suppression of multiple targets for approximately 25 minutes when I heard over my radio "Bikini One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six to Sundance leader, we are five minutes out, pop smoke for identification." I responded with "10-4 Bikini leader" and popped a yellow smoke grenade. Bikini leader responded, "I see yellow smoke, and am on final approach, keep down!" The Bikini’s were from the 170th Assault Helicopter Company(AHC), one of a select few units authorized and assigned to support MACVSOG cross-border operations into Laos.
As the UH-1 “Huey” extraction helicopters of the Bikini’s approached, the NVA gunners began firing with intensity but the air support increased almost 100% with fast movers, prop driven A1 Skyraiders, and helicopter gunships attacking multiple targets. I guided the air support in the suppression of multiple enemy targets and I moved to place the extraction helicopter panel marker on the LZ. The lead UH-1 touched down as soon as I had laid down the orange LZ panel marker and six familiar faces of the launch site quick reaction force jumped to take up position with the platoon. I began adjusting the air support strikes. I instructed SGT Zaborowski to have four SCU put SFC Bean’s body on the first helicopter along with six of the most severely wounded SCU. As soon as the first helicopter cleared the LZ, the Bikini-2 helicopter in formation set down to pick up eight more SCU. Almost immediately after clearing the LZ, the second ship was hit by multiple anti-aircraft fire but was not immediately disabled. Due to the damage sustained, this aircraft and another were later forced to land at Ben Het "A" Camp, near the border and inside the Republic of Vietnam. The Bikini-3 and Bikini-4 took 14 more SCU out, all of whom were wounded, and SGTs Conkin and Zaborowski. Bikini-5 extracted the remaining SCU.
As Bikini-6 was about to touch down on the LZ, about a dozen NVA soldiers appeared to the front right of my position, moving on the LZ from the direction of the river, and began to fire at the helicopter. I immediately engaged the attackers with my last magazine loaded in my weapon, while the remaining NVA were killed or wounded by members of the reaction force. Seeing the last slick touch down, I ordered all remaining personnel onto the aircraft, including the quick reaction force members. While the last of the extraction was in progress, I requested from the Skyraider leader that a napalm strike be initiated on the LZ after a final extraction identification of purple smoke was made. The Skyraider flight leader acknowledged the request and confirmed his ability to conduct the strike. I then popped a purple smoke grenade and crawled to the last extraction helicopter. At this point I now lacked the strength to climb aboard and had to be assisted by the helicopter crew chief.
The helicopter lifted off sustaining multiple hits from the enemy gunners on the large ridge facing the hilltop to the north. The helicopter gunners and I fired at, and killed more NVA soldiers, as they were attempting to ascend the hill from the direction of the river. I had only three 5.56mm rounds left in my possession after this final engagement.
The helicopter cleared the LZ and hostile area and landed at the Dak To launch site approximately 45 minutes later to see the other helicopters already safely on the ground, with the exception of the two helicopter that were forced to divert to Ben Het.
I was medically evacuated to Pleiku for my wounds, then to Japan, and later to Walter Reed, where I would spend over a year recovering from my wounds. I was eventually able to return to service and I am currently still serving in Special Forces with the 1/19th SFG(A) WVARNG.
Edward C. Ziobron Berkeley County
State of West Virginia
I,_____________________ , Notary Public for the State of West Virginia, do hereby certify that Edward C. Ziobron personally appeared before
me on this ____ day of
and being duly sworn, that he executed the foregoing affidavit.
Notary Public Signature