Monday, November 17, 2014


There is a backchannel pathway on the Internet where the Special Forces Brotherhood hangs out, where we compare notes and continually work our nefarious plans to take over the World. Late one night last week, one of the Nam vets uttered a phrase in Viet that caught my attention:

"Nui Coto"

I've heard older veterans refer to this little known chapter of the Vietnam war; fought between the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) with their American advisors, against South Vietnamese Communists. Until now I never knew the full story. I did some research; what I found is posted here, with permission - S.L.

Nui Coto and Tuk Chup loom over the Plain of Reeds (Photo: Lt. Col. James Pyle, USA-Ret.)


Copyright © 2014 Gary B. Blackburn

Deep in southwestern Vietnam stands a chain of mountains called the “Seven Sisters,” and the southern-most of those mountains is a rugged peak called Nui Coto. Early in 1969, representatives from 5th Special Forces and the 44th Special Tactical Zone reached the decision that in order to secure the region, the Viet Cong strongholds atop Nui Coto and Tuk Chup, a lesser peak to the southwest, must be attacked and destroyed.

The Nui Coto fortress was reputed to be the headquarters of Chau Kim, a notorious, almost mythic Cambodian communist. Chau and his troops had terrorized local farmers for years, demanding food and supplies for their camps.

Phase I of the operation called for CIDG troops from Special Forces A-camps in the area and National Police to cordon off and search local villages. That would cut off much of the enemy’s food supply, liberate the local populace, and help identify any local VC. Phase II called for 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 5th Mobile Strike Force Command (Nha Trang) to move in and seal off Tuk Chup (“chup” means knoll).

The “knoll,” covered with huge rocks and boulders the size of two-story houses is a “promontory of the Nui Coto group,” and riddled with caves used as storage facilities by the VC. Those caves would be a source of resupply and reinforcements if not isolated from the main peak. In Phase III, Tuk Chup would be cleared of enemy forces before friendly elements moved in to clear and secure Nui Coto itself. It was a simple plan, but there was nothing simple about Nui Coto, or Tuk Chup.

Phases I and II were completed by 14 March 1969, and the Mike Force units were flown into positions west of Nui Coto the following day. At 0430 hours on 16 March, an artillery barrage commenced, followed an hour later by the ground assault. In the predawn haze, hundreds of Mike Force soldiers with their Green Beret advisors moved silently across the paddies and marshland surrounding the ominous peak. Sgt. 1st Class Richmond Nail and the troops of 6th Company led the way, followed by Sergeant John Talley and his 4th Company. Hidden within the 800-foot-tall pile of boulders, enemy sharpshooters watched and waited.

The MSF battalions were comprised of separate companies of Koho, Cham, Raglai and Rhade Montagnards, as well as ethnic Chinese Nungs and Vietnamese, and the battalions’ Special Forces advisors. The first troops arrived at the base of the rocky mass and began to make their ascent as weak sunlight filtered through the swirling mist. Initially they had encountered only scattered sniper fire, but at 0645 the Viet Cong opened fire. M79 grenades and B-40 rockets rained down on the advancing troops, followed by a hail of machine gun and small arms fire. The barrage came out of nowhere and from everywhere. There were dark holes, cracks and crevices wherever the soldiers looked, and bullets seemed to be coming from all of them. Some 20 percent of one 200-man company was knocked out in minutes and the onslaught had only begun.

It was said that locals called the rocky mass “Superstition Mountain” in their dialect, because they believed its defenders were protected by spirits and “immune to death.” ARVN troops believed that the soul of every man killed there wandered the mountain forever, because Buddha had abandoned the ugly crag. It was certainly true that in earlier efforts to attack the mountain, the mountain had won. The 4th MSF Command had lost Joe Smith, Bobby Herreid, Gary Goudy, Roger Brown, and Bob Stec on Tuk Chup, just in the last six months. The promontory was a natural fortress overlooking the surrounding paddies and Plain of Reeds, and so far it had been impregnable.

Special Forces Staff Sgt. Albert Belisle, commanding one of the Strike Force companies of Montagnards, said: “When we crawled over the big boulders, Viet Cong sharpshooters picked us off one by one. We tried to crawl forward under the rocks, but the Viet Cong came on top of us, throwing and rolling grenades down.”

There were snipers everywhere; Belisle’s company had lost two men to sniper fire before they reached the foot of the knoll. As the MSF troops attempted to push beyond the massive rocks at the base of the mountain, they encountered even stiffer resistance. “. . . We fought straight up the hill,” Belisle said. “But every 20 yards another man fell.”

One of the more senior advisors said, “When my men snaked up from the crevices and squeezed themselves over the boulders, we caught the most accurate fire I have seen in six years here. It was screaming hell. The wounds were terrible. ‘Charlie’ wasted no bullet on easy wounds like arms and legs. When a medic crawled after them, Charlie seemed to know where he had to expose himself. With one bullet he would drop the medic right on top of the wounded man in the cave. From then on we just swapped grenades with the Viet Cong. The one who was more accurate lived.”

“We crouched between the rocks with a grenade in one hand and the other hand free, listening for the sound of a pin being pulled or the clink of a grenade pin,” Al Belisle recalled. “When a grenade came clinking in your direction there were only two chances – throw it back with your free hand or hunch between the rocks and pray.”

Montagnard Strikers make their way up the side of Tuk Chup – March 1969 (Photo: IVth Corps Mike Force History)

As his unit struggled to move, Belisle asked for three volunteers to crawl out and attempt to infiltrate the Viet Cong camp. His three Montagnard platoon leaders volunteered. Lieutenants Ha-Elyz, He-Non and Mang-Son took off their web gear and helmets, and handed their M16s to the Green Berets. Sticking knives in their belts, they stuffed their pockets with grenades and slipped away between the rocks.

The three young Montagnards had crawled only a short distance when they began to hear the chatter of a specific machine gun. Quietly signaling each other, they moved like shadows among the enormous granite rocks. As the battle roared around them, they soon found themselves behind a single enemy soldier in front of a small cave. The man was on one knee and intently firing an antiquated Chinese machine gun through a narrow crevice. Without a sound, Ha-Elyz slipped behind the man and killed him.

There was a narrow path from the cave extending on up the mountain, so the trio continued their trek. They had acquired an AK-47 rifle and moved quickly, keeping low to avoid being shot by their own men. Staying close to the stone outcroppings, the Montagnards passed several empty sniper positions before coming up behind and slightly below the next manned machine gun nest. As the three small men peered over the edge of a low ledge, they saw two VC in black uniforms chained to the stone wall behind them; they were firing a heavy machine gun. One of the men was cradling an ammunition belt and feeding it into the weapon; held by his safety chain, the gunner was leaning far out to the side and firing his weapon through a crack in the rocks while perfectly protected by solid granite. The chains that secured the men were tied around their waists and fastened to hooks driven into the stone. Quietly pulling the pin from a grenade, He-Non climbed up over the rim of the ledge, moved behind a boulder and tossed the explosive. The bodies were left dangling from their chains as the small team moved on up the trail.

Meanwhile, the main force of the MSF companies was making slow progress. The machine gun fire, rockets and grenades from above were unrelenting, exacting a terrible toll on the troops below, and the Green Berets leading them. Sgt. Belisle was literally caught “between a rock” and the destruction of his entire company. “I had to call in artillery and napalm to beat the assault back,” he said, “knowing all the time that my platoon leaders were somewhere under the bombarded rocks.”

As artillery and tactical air strikes commenced, the three infiltrators sought cover, cramming together into a small cleft under a house-size boulder. Artillery shells posed little danger, barring a direct hit, but napalm was of more concern. Their refuge was soon immersed in dense acrid smoke and black soot, and globules of flaming napalm dripped down the sides of the rock causing painful burns. The men appeared so blackened, battered and burned, however, that it worked to their advantage. As they continued their mission, they encountered a group of female guerrillas led by a man wearing a pistol, presumably a Viet Cong officer. One of the Montagnards held up their captured AK-47 in a salute, which the officer acknowledged, and then he asked if they were hurt or needed water. The three Montagnards could not answer, because their highland Vietnamese accent would give them away. With only a slight hesitation, the young men smiled, bowed, and nodded their heads as one of them flipped a grenade into the middle of the enemy group, and all three dived for cover.

Upon reaching what appeared to be a main entrance to the Tuk Chup cave complex, the three Montagnard officers killed the guard and stole inside.
Once inside, they moved from room to room, surveying the accessible areas of the cave system. If they encountered VC, they simply bluffed their way past and kept moving. Before departing the caves, they grabbed as many documents as they could safely carry, and made their way back down the rocky escarpment. With the sun slowly dying behind the peaks of southern Cambodia, the battle continued to roar, and the three youngsters crossed safely back into area controlled by their company some eleven hours after they had left.

“They got us all the poop we needed to get the company into the caves,” Belisle said proudly, “. . . I never thought I'd see the three alive again, but . . . they were back, with eleven Charlies killed and they still had seven grenades left.”

Tactical air and artillery strikes on Tuk Chup – March 1969 (Photo: IVth Corps Mike Force History)

Gary B. Blackburn served with the US Air Force Security Service 1961-64. He studied Chinese at the Institute of Far Eastern Languages, Yale University and at Goodfellow AFB, San Angelo, Texas. Overseas assignments included the Joint Sobe Processing Center in Okinawa, and the 6987th Security Group, Shu Lin Kou Air Station in Taiwan.

To be continued . . .


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