This is the third and final post on the Battle of Nui Coto. Thanks to Gary B. Blackburn for allowing me to post his excellent history here in its entirety . . . S.L.
PART 3 - NUI COTO AND THE MIKE FORCE ASSAULT ON TUK CHUP – MARCH 1969
Copyright © 2014 Gary B. Blackburn
On 17 March 1969, a group of nine “Hoi Chanhs” defected to the Americans on Tuk Chup. “Hoi Chanh” was the term used for Viet Cong who opted to take part in the Chieu Hoi Program (loosely translated as “Open Arms”). Chieu Hoi was a psy-war initiative to encourage defection within the VC ranks. Recent psy-war efforts in the Nui Coto area, combined with the current successes of the 5th Mobile Strike Force had convinced the group that Tuk Chup was going to fall, and they were willing to provide a wealth of valuable information in return for safe passage. The deserters pointed out the locations of weapons caches, gun emplacements, troop concentrations, and the tunnel entrances of the principle caves. Their information confirmed and expanded the data that Sgt. Al Belisle’s young Montagnards had gathered during their scouting foray the day before.
At first light on 18 March, the Mike Force soldiers began to sweep south. The 1st Battalion would secure the lower half of the mountain and the 2nd Battalion would secure the top. Three 4th MSF battalions would be the rear guard, ensuring that the 1/5th and the 2/5th were not attacked from behind. As midday approached, the Mike Force troops were encountering heavy resistance and taking substantial casualties. Reinforcements were brought in and the steady forward movement of the troops continued, clearing snipers, machine gun nests, spider holes, and caves as they went. The battle was reminiscent of the Marines clearing the Japanese out of Suribachi in March of ‘45.
Battery B of the 6/77th Artillery (9th Infantry Division) provided direct artillery support and helped to soften up the opposition ahead of the Mike Force troops, firing over 14,000 105mm rounds. The Mike Force Special Weapons Platoon also supplied invaluable support using jeep-mounted 106mm recoilless rifles for precision fire on the well-hidden VC snipers and machine gun nests. Twenty-eight young Green Beret volunteers would receive their Combat Infantryman’s Badges for their service in that platoon during the Battle of Nui Coto.
The lines of Mike Force troops continued their assault, but progress was slow and casualties continued to mount. Snipers were a constant fear and bullets appeared to come out of nowhere. The greatest frustration for both troops and Green Berets was the lack of a visible enemy. The defenders of Superstition Mountain seemed as ethereal as the ghostly residents of its mythology. Physical signs of the Viet Cong, either living or dead, were few, but the rockets, grenades, and small weapons fire were real and unrelenting. As the US-led troops pushed forward, the VC simply melted into the surrounding terrain, taking their dead and wounded with them.
As darkness settled over the unearthly landscape, the attack slowed but did not stop. The moon, combined with occasional flares and illumination rounds created a fantastic landscape of wildly distorted shadows and eerie phenomena among the giant boulders. The exhausted troops continued to push forward, but had to wonder when they would catch the elusive foe that always remained one step beyond their grasp.
As dawn broke on the fourth day of their campaign, little had changed. The assault continued to move slowly around the massive pile of boulders, the opposition continued without abatement, and there was still little physical sign of the enemy. Morale among the troops was low. They had seen many of their comrades killed and wounded, and in their minds, had little to show for it. Most of the Special Forces NCOs were hardened veterans who had returned tour after tour to work with and fight with the Mike Force troops, but they had never dealt with an enemy force that was so lethal, yet so evasive. At midnight that night, the Americans declared a ceasefire until 0730 hours.
The break provided much-needed rest for the Strike Force soldiers who had pushed so hard for so long, and also allowed the Green Berets time to intensify their psy-ops campaign. Using loud speakers, they invited the Viet Cong units still on the mountain to either surrender or come forward and fight, but there was little response. Chau Kim’s influence was strong. At 0730 sharp, the side of the mountain still in enemy hands was hit with a violent barrage of artillery and air strikes, and the Mike Force assault resumed.
Somewhat refreshed, the two Strike Force battalions pushed forward for two more days, taking several large caverns and well-defended ravines in the process. On 22 March, the first of the extensive cave complexes was captured, and the Americans marveled at the size of the underground facilities. One cavern was large enough for the VC to house two battalions. The next day, Mike Force troops discovered a fully-equipped underground hospital, complete with bamboo beds, deep within the stony fortress. Several generators furnished electricity for lights and ventilation, and rainwater caught in natural depressions on top the mountain provided piped-in water for the facility.
There were more skirmishes with the Viet Cong on 24 and 25 March; additional caves and tunnels with caches of weapons and documents were discovered, but most were deserted. Information from the Hoi Chanhs and Sgt. Belisle’s Montagnard scouts indicated that the Strike Force was near the main communist complex and Chau Kim’s headquarters. Defeating the legendary Chau would be a major blow to Viet Cong prestige in the Mekong Delta.
Most of the Viet Cong troops had slipped away, but hundreds of weapons and huge quantities of supplies and ammunition, along with thousands of pages of documents and personnel records were captured. Numerous other caves and additional stores of equipment and supplies were also discovered over the next ten days as the 5th MSF, assisted by CIDG units and National Police, mopped up the area.
Some 55 Viet Cong bodies were recovered, but the true number of enemy dead and wounded will never be known. It was believed that Chau Kim and 250-300 of his troops had escaped across the Cambodian border. The Mike Force warriors paid a heavy price for their bravery and determination. They suffered 45 dead and 191 wounded in action. U.S. Special Forces casualties included 24 wounded and three killed: Sgt. John Greene, Staff Sgt. Benedict Davan, and Master Sgt. Willis F. House of the Mike Force Special Weapons Platoon who was killed by a sniper on 13 March.
The Battle of Nui Coto (as it has become known) received little note in the U.S. media. The press was totally consumed with the story of the “Chicago Eight,” Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner, Bobby Seale, and Tom Hayden. On 20 March 1969, they were indicted by a Chicago grand jury for crossing state lines to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention and the media circus that followed would dominate front pages across the US for months. The deaths of three Green Berets and 45 indigenous tribesmen from South Vietnam could hardly compete with that.
In the “Seven Sisters” region of the Mekong Delta, however, the battle was a big story. For the first time in over 20 years, the area was not under Communist control. Tuk Chup had fallen.
[Sources: Recommendation for Valorous Unit Awards: Company D (5th MSFC), 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces – 1970 (NARA); Operational Report – Lessons Learned, Headquarters, 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, Period Ending 30 April 1969; “The News and Courier” Charleston, S.C., 31 March 1969 – “Only Ghosts at Tuk Chup Now” – Horst Faas (AP); “Mike Force” – Lt. Col. L. H. “Bucky” Burruss; “Mobile Strike Forces in Vietnam 1966-1970” – Gordon Rottman]