National Guard’s deadliest days in 'Nam
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The two National Guard Artillery battalions that served in Vietnam in 1969 experienced the deadliest single-action losses of the war for citizen-soldier units. The homecoming for these casualties caused an outpouring of public emotion in Bardstown, Ky, and Manchester, NH.
Infusion was the byword when it came to the National Guard during the Vietnam War. It was a policy designed to prevent too many men from the same hometown from dying in a single action from the same unit. However, in two instances, it was unable to avert fate.
The Army National Guard’s a single deadliest action of the Vietnam War came in the summer of 1969. On June 19, C Battery, 2nd Battalion, 138th Field Artillery (Kentucky National Guard), was stationed at Firebase Tomahawk. Perched atop a saddle-shaped hill astride Highway 1, just 19 miles southeast of Hue, it was a prime target.
“This is a terrible place to be,” recalled one officer when he first saw it. Besides the 70-man artillery battery, 90 percent of whom originally hailed from the Bardstown area of Kentucky, the firebase was manned by the 18-man 1st Platoon of C Co, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Abn Division. At 0130, the 72nd Sapper Company of the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) 4th Regiment attacked, quickly breaching the perimeter. “During the first 15 to 20 minutes, I didn’t think we were gonna make it.” Ron Hunns remembered it would be a tough night indeed for the citizen Solders.
”Seems like we fought for hours and hours. “Ron Simpson said, “but it really wasn’t that long. When I went out at first light, I was amazed at what little was left. The whole hill was just about gone.”
An estimated 150 enemy rocket-propelled grenade and satchel charges had destroyed three howitzers (and disabled one), an ammo storage area, nine bunkers, the mess hall, the dining tent, a maintenance area, four ammo carriers and three jeeps. Of the ten artillery men killed, five were actually active-duty solders infused into the Kentucky battery. Of the 14 total KIA, four died from gunfire, three from shrapnel and five succumbed to burns (three between June 23rd and July 6th).
Four of the Guardsmen called Bardstown home; the other was from Carrollton. A total of 37 Guardsmen were wounded. The 101st platoon lost four KIA and 13 WIA. Some 18 NVA sapper bodies were counted after base defenders repulsed the attack, including hand-to-hand combat. Though Bardstown, population then 5,000, is sometimes referred to as suffering the highest per capita loss of the war (its surrounding area sustained 17 killed), that dubious distinction actually belongs to Beallsville, Ohio. With only 450 residents, it sacrificed six of its sons.
Of Battery C’s original 117 members, 85 were married. It enlisted seven sets of brothers, plus many cousins. Their fallen comrades, as well as other area residents killed, are honored by two monuments on the town’s Courthouse Square. “Bardstown would become a symbol of how deep into America that war had reached, and few, if any, communities in this land felt the impact of the war as did the people here.”
Far to the northeast in New Hampshire, the 94000 people of this mid-sized city may have taken exception to that statement. Manchester was home base to the 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery. The battalion sent 506 soldiers to Vietnam, 80 percent of whom were married. Many of the men were of French-Canadian descent who attended the same schools and churches. Some lived on the same streets in the same West Side neighborhood. Some were not even U.S. citizens.
Once in Vietnam, 70 percent were “infused” or dispersed to regular Army units. No matter where they were stationed, actions on the homefront were felt keenly.
CWO Albert Hale of Service Battery wrote in a letter published in the Manchester Union Leader. “We feel that the publicity at home has been focused so intensely on those who may not have excepted their duty that by accepting ours, we have been forgotten.” On August 26th, five men of A Battery were on their way to regroup in Long BInh before heading home. About 32 miles from Saigon, their vehicle hit a 40-pound mine on Highway 13, known as “Thunder Road.” They were within sight of Lai Khe Base Camp.” Said Joe Cummins. “I was there and witnessed the explosion which blew the 5-ton truck they were riding in nearly 100 feet in the air.” When the men’s bodies were returned home, 2,000 mourners turned out. The five flag-draped coffins were too much for family members to bear. (Four of the five were married.)
“The moans and sobs of relatives were heard above the silence,” according to the New Hampshire Sunday News. City officials called it the “saddest place, the saddest day in the city’s history.” Veterans of the 197th have held various anniversary reunions. The deaths of those fellow unit members are never far from their thoughts. As Roy Hughes said, “Part of all of us is in those cemeteries in Manchester and always will be.”
Almost 9000 Army National Guard soldier served in Vietnam as mobilized unit members, individual volunteers or reassigees. Some 97 members of the Guard (including nine airmen) died in Vietnam. 80 hostile and 17 non-battles. Eight intact Army NG units were sent to Vietnam, including the two artillery battalions mentioned and the 116 Combat Engineer Battalion (Idaho ARNG)
The only National Guard Infantry unit in -country was Indiana’s D. Company (Ranger,) 151st Infantry. Operating out of a base near Long Ninh, D Company’s 172 Guardsmen (plus 32 regulars) carried out long-range recon patrols. It suffered two KIA and 100 WIA during its 1969 tour. A study done by National Guard historian John Listy shows that the Kansas National guard lost the most men in Vietnam. Of its 30-era dead. 28 were killed and two died in training accidents stateside. Twenty of the dead were from the 137th Infantry.
The 133rd Infantry (Iowa) was next with 12 KIA, followed by the 299th Infantry (Hawaii) with 10 KIA. But keep in mind that all these Guardsmen died as individuals assigned to regular Army units in Vietnam. An officer who volunteered from a Guard unit was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
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— Royal D. Goodman, U.S. Army/Vietnam,
1st Cav/9th Infantry