The Battle for Nui Coto, fought in March 1969 by Mike Force Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), South Vietnamese forces (ARVN) and their US advisors against Communist forces, was as intense, as bloody and as desperate as any engagement in the entire Indochina Conflict - S.L.
NUI COTO AND THE MIKE FORCE ASSAULT ON TUK CHUP – MARCH 1969 Copyright © 2014 Gary B. Blackburn
“We killed them one by one with grenades, direct hits of ‘Willie Pete’ (white phosphorus artillery shells), or with napalm,” said Maj. John Borgman, commander of the 5th Mobile Strike Force, as his companies pushed and clawed their way up the rocky ridges of Tuk Chup. Experience gained in prior attempts had shown the futility of attacking Tuk Chup’s fortifications head-on, so as the first Mike Force soldiers reached the top of the mountain, additional platoons moved up to secure and reinforce the MSF positions from top to bottom. Maj. Borgman’s plan was for his two battalions to sweep around the peak in a flanking move, cleaning out the dozens of small caves and tunnels as they went.
With the two lead companies moving on up the mountain, the troops of Sgt. 1st Class Stan McKee’s 1st Company, still at the foot of the rocky butte, were now receiving the brunt of the enemy defenses. The company was made up of ethnic Vietnamese with primarily South Vietnamese Special Forces NCOs in charge. It was an early “Vietnamization” effort and there were only two Americans assigned to the entire 200-man company. The SVNF cadre had little control over their troops and discipline was lax compared to the companies of Montagnards and Nungs. As the machine gun and RPG fire intensified, the unit began to take casualties and halted any forward progress. The men crawled behind rocks and cowered there, refusing to move, in spite of prodding and threats from their Vietnamese sergeants.
Unedited footage of the action at Nui Coto (no audio). The first section shows the 9th ARVN attacking a cave in which Communist soldiers had a complex. They did not get inside. The second section shows an American advisor - ducking to avoid possible sniper fire - directing a Chinook dropping a form of napalm on another area nearby thought to be a Communist stronghold. This footage was shot with a 16 mm Filmo camera (no autofocus or light meter, no audio) by Chris Jensen, 221st Signal Company. This footage now resides in the National Archives.
McKee was away from his company trying to rescue Sgt. Jack Greene, who had been hit by a sniper while dragging one of his wounded 2nd Company troops to safety. McKee was determined to reach Greene, but in his absence, half of 1st Company deserted the battlefield. Even a litter detail he had brought with him to assist in his rescue of Greene had disappeared. It was not the Vietnamese company’s finest hour.
Sergeants Blanchard, Nail and Talley had moved back down the steep slope to assist another Green Beret who was pinned down by sniper-fire and calling for help. The three were accompanied by a public information officer with a camera, and as they reached the position of the downed American, the PIO was shot through the chest, slumping to the ground. Amid a hail of gunfire, Sgt. Hamp Dews, a Special Forces medic, slid down the face of the rock and worked quickly to try and save the dying man. But now the entire group was pinned down. Richmond Nail was the next casualty. While attempting to spot the sniper, he was struck in the face, partially blinding him. Spinning around as he was hit, Nail was wounded again in the kidney. Having failed in his efforts to save the photographer, Hamp Dews now turned his attention to saving Nail who was in serious condition.
Staff Sgt. Ben Davan’s company had been under intensive sniper, machine gun and B-40 rocket fire, and it was impossible to tell where the fire was coming from among the tall boulders. Several of Davan’s men had been hit and others in the company seemed disorganized and confused. Sensing his troops were on the verge of panic, Davan had led a small team through withering machine gun fire to a vantage point where they could see the offending bunker. After instructing his team to lay down covering fire, he had single-handedly assaulted the Viet Cong position, placing such deadly fire on the gunners that the position was destroyed and several VC surrendered.
Davan’s company regrouped and moved some distance up the hill before once again coming under heavy machine gun and sniper fire. It was the same sniper that had killed the public information officer, wounded Richmond Nail, and still had the group of Green Beret NCOs pinned down in the rocks below. Three more of Davan’s troops had been wounded, and were also pinned down. The soldiers were unable to move, and no one had dared to try reaching them. With no thought for his own safety, the young sergeant crawled down through the rocks to assist his men. Lifting the first man slightly off the ground, he managed to drag him in a circuitous route to a sheltered location and quickly returned for the second man. The sniper’s bullets were ricocheting off the granite boulders, spraying the wounded striker with chips of granite as Davan helped him crawl to a nearby medic. But now there was one left, and this one was the most difficult. The young Montagnard was sprawled awkwardly in a sandy open area between two massive rocks. He appeared to be alive, but unconscious; if he moved, it was certain death. The sergeant reached the cover of one of the huge stones safely, but as he crawled forward to rescue the boy, Ben Davan was shot and killed by the sniper.
The compatriots of the Green Berets trapped below had been trying to locate the hiding place of the sniper who had brought their operation to a halt. Each time the sniper fired, they would move closer to the sound of the weapon. When the shot was fired that killed Davan, Sgt. 1st Class John Maketa found himself directly above the sniper’s location. He had heard the rifle’s report and it had come from a deep, shadowed cleft in the rocks. Borrowing a flamethrower from the Special Weapons Platoon, the sergeant strapped it on his back and rappelled down the rock face to a position that seemed to be right. Then, taking a deep breath, Maketa swung himself out in front of the gunman’s hole and filled the cavity with a deluge of flaming fuel.
Special Forces Sgt. John “Jack” Greene was rescued from the battlefield and medevaced to a hospital, but would die of his wounds six days later. Greene, of Charlotte, North Carolina, was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for his heroic efforts to save his wounded man, at the cost of his own life. Jack Greene was 20 years old.
For “exceptional valor,” MSF Company Commander Benedict Davan was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, and the Bronze Star Medal. Ben Davan, from Westbrook, Maine, was 23 years old.
Special Weapons Platoon jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifle – Tuk Chup – March 1969 (Photo: Hamp Dews-Nha Trang Mike Force History)
To be continued . . .