Ain’t Released Me Yet
Memoirs of a REMF
Copyright© 2016 by Robert B. Martin, IV
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal. I have attempted to recreate events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them.
The Siege of FSB Ripcord
“In war, truth is the first casualty.”...........Aeschylus
What would become a twenty-three-day continuous siege of FSB Ripcord began with mortar fire on July 1, 1970. There had been sporadic fighting around Ripcord since March 12 when the NVA began building up their strength in a plan to overrun the firebase and kill all of the approximately six hundred U.S. and ARVN troops on the firebase. Some later estimates put the NVA troop concentration at more than fifty thousand men.
FSB Ripcord was located 38 km west of Hue and 12 km northeast of the northern end of the A Shau Valley. Alpha Battery of the 2/11th Arty and their six 155mm howitzers along with six 105mm howitzers from another battalion were dug in on top of the hill. The firebase was defended by elements of the 2/506th infantry of the 101st Airborne Division.
The troops on FSB Ripcord were heavily outnumbered by an extremely aggressive contingent of regular NVA troops. After the siege began, members of the battalion at Camp Eagle became very concerned about their buddies on Ripcord. The 101st was taking a lot of casualties and the firebase was not being reinforced or evacuated. Not being “in the know,” the easiest person to blame for this was the battalion commander, LTC Burke. After all, he was the one who had closed the EM club, banned the USO shows, and recently ordered everyone to take down their state flags. He was not a popular guy with the troops. Of course, the colonel did not have the authority to reinforce or evacuate the firebase. He was only the battalion commander, not the division commander. But someone had to take the blame.
One night during the siege of FSB Ripcord, I was awakened by automatic weapon fire. It was the familiar sound of an M-16 emptying a 20-round magazine. At 650 to 750 rounds per minute, this takes no more than a couple of seconds. I ran out of the hooch to see what was happening. I would not have believed what had happened if I had not seen it with my own eyes. It was somewhat frightening, yet I wanted to laugh. LTC Burke’s personal water tank, stood on a small tower, about ten feet or so in height next to his personal hooch and was hemorrhaging water from a couple of dozen or so bullet holes. Someone had been pissed off enough at LTC Burke to shoot up his water tank! No one was ever caught.
The colonel received a second unwelcome surprise another night while the NVA were hammering away at FSB Ripcord. This time, it wasn’t as funny. It was much more personal. Someone opened the door of the colonel’s hooch and tossed in a hand grenade. It didn’t explode because the pin was not pulled. I suppose it was only meant to frighten him. Once again, no one was caught.
On July 21, 1970, as the siege continued, 1LT Bob Kalsu (it is important you recall this name from the beginning of my memoir), Battery Commander of A Battery, 2/11th Arty was killed by mortar fire on Ripcord. Our Battery Commander, CPT Austin, was ordered out to take command of the battery and he left later that day. CPT George Bannon was assigned as our replacement for H&HB Battery Commander. I only had a few more weeks before going home, so don’t remember very much about him.
Finally, on July 23, 1970, the decision was made to evacuate FSB Ripcord. Helicopters performed the evacuation under continuous mortar, anti-aircraft, and small arms fire. Chinooks carried the artillery and heavy equipment out first (I guess someone decided it was more important than the men).
The evacuation required twenty-two Chinook sorties and one hundred Huey sorties that day. They flew in and out of the firebase while under constant fire. Many were damaged and several were shot down. The NVA had zeroed in on the landing pads and were pounding them with mortar fire.
The last man evacuated from Ripcord was reportedly a Kit Carson Scout. They barely got him out before the entire firebase was overrun by the NVA. One helicopter pilot said it looked like ants swarming over an anthill. Six American soldiers were left on Ripcord because they were either afraid or unable to leave their bunkers. Their bodies were recovered about six weeks later.
1SG Corbett learned that the evacuees from Ripcord were being choppered to Camp Evans. He decided we should go over to Camp Evans and give CPT Austin a ride back to Camp Eagle. I got the jeep and we took off to Camp Evans.
When we arrived at Evans, we learned that CPT Austin had been wounded during the evacuation. A mortar round had taken off part of a foot (I don’t remember which one) as he was jumping into a Huey. We were told that he was pulled aboard the chopper and taken to the 326th Evac Hospital there at Camp Evans. I drove over to the 326th as fast as I could, but we weren’t allowed inside once we got there because it was so busy. The first sergeant and I stood around outside of the hospital for a while and watched chopper after chopper land, off load the wounded and dead, and head right back to Ripcord for another load. We never did get to see CPT Austin. After he was stabilized at the 326th Evac, he was flown out to the hospital ship USS Hope for surgery. I believe from Hope we was transferred to an Army hospital in Japan before making it home. I did get to see him a couple years later when he and his wife visited me in Savannah, GA.
A temporary mortuary tent had been set up beside the hospital. The dead were taken into the tent where they were cleaned and identified before being zipped up in body bags and placed into a refrigerated tractor-trailer. I could see the bodies stacked like cordwood when the door of the trailer was opened. It was a very sobering sight.
Ripcord was a political football that did not have to happen. The Army was not allowed to reinforce Ripcord during the long siege because the politicians in Washington were afraid that reinforcing the firebase would give the impression that Nixon’s Vietnamization Policy was not working. The politicians were afraid it would appear that the U.S. was escalating the war if reinforcements were sent in, and the Army was afraid that evacuating the firebase would be tantamount to admitting defeat.
Ripcord was an embarrassment to the Army. Partly because FSB Henderson had been overrun earlier that spring, but it was mainly because the Army was still red-faced over the events at Hamburger Hill a year earlier while I was in AIT at Fort Sill watching it on TV. The Army lost seventy-two soldiers KIA and three hundred and seventy-two WIA in taking Hamburger Hill, after which it was promptly abandoned and left for the enemy to re-occupy.
A GI argued after Hamburger Hill, “Brass are calling this a tremendous victory. We call it a goddam butcher shop… If you want to die so some lifer can get a promotion, go right ahead. But if you think your life is worth something, you better get yourselves together. If you don’t take care of [I assume he meant, “kill”] the lifers, they might damn well take care of you.”
The public outcry over what seemed an unnecessary loss of life on Hamburger Hill was tremendous, and the politicians and Army brass didn’t want to go through that again. As a result, the Army implemented a news blackout to prevent the loss of FSB Ripcord from becoming known. The news media received no briefings on Ripcord during the entire siege and were told nothing about it once the siege was over.
Even the troops back in the battalion at Camp Eagle didn’t get much news about what was going on. In a letter dated Friday, July 24, 1970, I wrote, “I suppose you have heard about FSB Ripcord on the news, although they may not have mentioned it by name.” I went on to say, “They have really had a rough time out on Ripcord and everyone is glad to see them back. They only had 4 killed and about 25-30 wounded.” The casualty figures in my letter were far from accurate. The Army didn’t want the actual casualty figures to become public knowledge so they were buried among other casualty reports from across Vietnam. In other words, there was a cover-up.
To this day, you will find variations in the number of U.S. casualties reported for that time period. The After Action Report from the 101st Airborne Division to the Commanding General of XXIV Corps reported 68 U.S. KIA and 443 WIA out of the approximately 600 soldiers on the firebase. If you add in the fighting around and in support of Ripcord during the same time period, the number would be closer to 800 total casualties.
The same After Action Report went on to state that six helicopters were destroyed, seventeen suffered major damage, nineteen suffered minor damage, and another sixty aircraft received combat damage that required limited repair for a total of over a hundred aircraft either damaged or destroyed out of the one hundred and twenty-two total sorties reported.
Alpha Battery of the 2/11th Arty suffered 3 KIA and about 25 or 30 WIA, almost one-third of the battery. The KIA were CPL Burke Miller, 1LT Robert Kalsu, and SGT David Johnson.
Once the evacuation of Ripcord was complete and the NVA were stripping the firebase bare, B52s bombed the hill and the NVA on it into the Stone Age.
The Army’s rationale for “closing” (the Army did not use the word, evacuating) Ripcord is given in the 101st Airborne Division’s After Action Report. It states, “The closing of RIPCORD would make troops available for offensive use against the enemy supply caches and logistic installations to the rear of the NVA forces massed around RIPCORD.” As good an excuse as any, I suppose.
The report did admit, though, that, “Additional factors of critical importance in the decision to close FSB RIPCORD were the domestic and foreign political implications of another U.S. firebase undergoing a KHE SANH or DIEN BIEN PHU siege (there was no mention of Henderson or Hamburger Hill). RIPCORD, if given an inordinate amount of adverse publicity, might well have jeopardized the program of Vietnamization.”
That made a lot more sense, but they should have used the word “evacuate” instead of “closed.” Otherwise, it sounds like they just hung up a CLOSED sign at the gate and went home.
An “Empty Boots” ceremony was held in the battalion’s amphitheater in memory of the three KIA from Alpha Battery.
The Siege of FSB Ripcord was the last major battle involving U.S. troops of the Vietnam War. To this day, the U.S. Army has not acknowledged it as a defeat and continues to say the U.S. never lost a battle in Vietnam.
To learn more about the siege of FSB Ripcord you may want to read, Ripcord: Screaming Eagles under Siege, Vietnam 1970 by Keith W. Nolan (OutSkirtsPress publisher) and Remembering Ripcord by Christopher J. Brady (Presidio publisher).
Continued in Chapter 49, A Seven Day Leave….