Inside the wire: sappers attack Cu Chi Airfield
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In the fourth deadliest single ground incident for an engineer unit in the Vietnam War, 10 men of the 554th Eng, Bn. (Construction), 79th Eng, Grp, were KIA over 2 1/2 hours at Cu Chi Airfield.
Before dawn on Feb. 26, 1969, enemy sappers raided the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters Base Camp at Cu Chi, 20 miles northwest of Saigon. With the base already on alert, one man slept in each of the 16 CH-47A Chinook helicopters to guard them. Rocket fire preceded the ground attack at 4 a.m.
Some 39 Dac Cong (VC special force) sappers, according to witnesses, broke through the base’s 10 outer rolls of concertina wire, sneaking into the perimeter. Their mission was to destroy Chinook helicopters of the 269th Combat Aviation Bn, 12th Combat Avn. Grp, 1st Avn Bde.
“I was amazed to see that the dozens of trip flares we had put into our wires had been disabled by cutting the trip wire and wrapping it around the flare,” remembered one soldier of D Company, 554th Eng Bn. Michael Looney was assigned to the 515th Engineer Platoon attached to A Co, 554th Eng. Bn. He was awakened that morning by mortar rounds hitting inside the camp. “We’d had these kinds of attacks before,” Looney said. “It was nothing new. Then I heard someone yelling that the VC were trying to breach the fences surrounding the base camp. This was something new.”
Looney got his rifle and ammo belt, and slowly make it to one of the doors on the side of the hooch. It was still dark outside, barely lit up from the flares on the bunker line. Then he heard someone yelling that the VC were in the A Company area.
“I could hear AK-47 fire close by,” Looney said. “I retreated back inside the hooch with my weapon trained on the door. Through the door I could see a body lying on the ground. It turned out to be a good buddy on mine who was killed by AK-47 fire during the night. Members of the 515th Engineer Platoon and A Company were never the same after that.”
Jim Mooney of C Co, 125th Signal Bn, 25th Inf DIv, was assigned to guard the motor pool at the time. He recalls running straight into an ambush.
“A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hit the lead vehicle with the duty officer and his driver,” Mooney said. “We jumped out of our truck and hit the ground. In a scene reminiscent of the grand finale at a fireworks display, a barrage of RPG fire hit us.” Mooney saw one Sergeant run into a group of the enemy. He fought them single-handedly, breaking his M-16 over their heads. He received the Bronze Star for valor.
In the two-hour plus attack, 11 sappers were killed and another eight captured in the 554th’s Hotel Sector alone. A maintenance officer captured one POW by himself.
“Capt. Mills had stopped by the mess hall for a cup of coffee,” recalled Maj. Handly of B Trp, 3rd Sqdn, 4th Cav. “As he headed to the squadron headquarters, an enemy soldier jumped out from between two barracks with his hands up. Capt Mills, unarmed except for the cup of coffee, took the sapper to the headquarters where he was tied up and placed with other POWs.
Motor pool Sgt. of C Co, 25th Medical Bn, 25th Inf Div, saw soldiers pulling dead Vietnamese out of a bunker. “As we went around the bunker lines, we saw Viet Cong casualties lying on the ground,” said he. “Some of them had demolition charges pinned to their backs, RPG rounds and so forth.”
“One person who was managing the trailer transfer point, also recalled that some of the enemy dead had been booby-trapped. A total of 14 U.S. servicemen were KIA, and at least 30 WIA. Some 71 percent of the KIAs were from the 554th Engineers alone, C Co (four), A Co (three), and D Co (three). Nine Chinook helicopters were completely destroyed and another three satchel charges in most of our 16 Chinooks or hit them with RPGs at close range,” remembered a CH-47 pilot with the 242nd ASHC. Some KIAs were not found until morning.
“Troops manning the sector by the airstrip dozed off on watch and were found the next morning with their throats slit,” he said. “Although I didn’t know those guys, their fate has stayed with me to this day.
“Our specialist was sleeping aboard a Chinook helicopter when the sappers attacked. He was decapitated by an RPG. Two men of the 554th were killed enrout to the showers, and another two were KIA when Bunker 66 was blown up by satchel charges. Overall, the airfield raid was mass confusion.
“That night there were no heroes and no cowards,” he said. “Just a bunch of ordinary guys caught up in a bad situation.”
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry